Private-Public Spaces: How They Shape Our Cities
Public space as we know it is a designated area in a human settlement that is open to everyone. It functions as a place for public gathering—one of the earliest examples in history was the squares in ancient Greek metropolises and other cities. They were used as an arena for commerce; to buy and sell produce and wares; to discuss politics and make public announcements; for street performances and theatrics—essentially activities involving social groups.
Over time, the forms and functions of public spaces have shifted. Now, they include parks, pedestrian paths and other accessible (blue/green) infrastructures, sometimes even institutional buildings. Aside from areas of social gatherings, they have also increasingly become spaces for solitary activities, such as relaxing or reading.
In light of how public spaces enhance our experience of the cities, private developments have also started to contribute by way of extending their property, whether through urban design policies or simply as a function of the buildings on those plots. As many cities are now being designed with transit-oriented developments in mind, thoroughfares on private lands might be the most common privately-owned public space, or POPS, these days. Malls, being almost always present in any city, are also considered as POPS since people are given the freedom to enter and roam around. But the fact that most people who visit a mall would spend on something also means this project typology does not reflect a truly public space where people could spend nothing but still enjoy their time.
However, this seems to be a different case in Indonesia’s cities. Lacking adequate options, and having gated, poorly maintained public spaces have led most people to spend their time in malls. With such buildings being designed to be comfortable and having their own parks or open space, malls have overshadowed many potential public spaces in their own respective cities.
Having said that, bigger cities like Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya are providing better quality public spaces. In Jakarta, for example, where the MRT systems are running, a noticeable length of pedestrian way and a number of public spaces are now functional and active. A shift towards public space being popular is getting more pronounced. Still, whenever a new POPS with open or green space that is successfully drawing more people than those in a usual public space might is an indication that people need more public spaces; that the available public spaces need to be better; or that people are just well-acquainted with the comfort provided in POPS. Another issue lies with how POPS and public spaces are still not well connected. As a result, people tend not to bother what the public spaces available in their city have to offer.
In Singapore, pedestrians could tread seamlessly from one public space to another POPS. The boundary between what is public and private is blurred, often because how deeply integrated these POPS are with public spaces like pedestrian pathways, MRT stations, parks, etc. The connectivity of POPS and public space then becomes one of the unique characters of this city-state. This is because malls are not the only buildings that offer connecting spaces in the city, but offices, housings, hotels, institutions, and many other typologies have also been well integrated with the urban streetscape.
In a broader sense, good integration of POPS and public space in a city could provide numerous positive effects. Firstly, pedestrians could feel safer when they walk through POPS as these spaces are guarded and secure. Secondly, especially in high-traffic areas like the MRT, rentable spaces could benefit both owners and pedestrians. Moreover, POPS with art installations or well-designed spaces are getting more popular and help to generate crowd as well. Thirdly, thoroughfares within POPS are usually better sheltered or are located indoors, giving greater comfort to those walking through these routes.
The development of POPS, however, could turn rather restrictive, if not managed with specific guidelines and policies. We could see, for example, how London and its many POPS within the city have contributed to some of its public troubles. These POPS, in the form of a park or square, although seemingly open to the public, have undisclosed rules that have made it hard for the public to act freely within these spaces. Moreover, there is also an escalated fear that POPS comes with heightened surveillance that could compromise the privacy of the public using these spaces.
However, with all the possibilities of what POPS could become, this type of public space still has its own integral functions in a city. Whether as a part of connected thoroughfares, a small park for employees in a certain building to take a break, an open entrance of a mall for pedestrians, or a public park in return for certain development incentives for landowners, POPS have the opportunity to develop areas that the state has no access or right to plan entirely. Transparent policies and collaboration between the city and private developers that aim for accessible, inclusive and functional public spaces—whether public or privately owned—might be the key to shape a better connected, more liveable city.