Lyn Lofland: The Public Realm and the development of urban space

lyn-lofland-public-realmLyn Lofland’s The Public Realm has been a fairly transformative book in how I think about space, I am unsure how it had never come my way before reviewing a book on mobilities containing some wonderful ethnographies of space, but I think it shows how powerful academic silos continue to be.  It is packed full of insight, so this is a first post of several — too many, because much of what she discusses here honestly has not come my way before quite like this.

It is a critique of those theorists who have found the city to be most worthy of critique — like Wirth, Miller, Simmel — to build upon those who have sought to understand what makes it work, what makes cities the places of choice for so many to live. Her favourites are Gregory Stone, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman, and William H Whyte (and this reminds me I have to get round to reading City: Rediscovering the Center).

She starts with some definitions – and it occurs to me that maybe I don’t do this enough. How do you defining a city? For Wirth, it is a ‘large, dense and heterogenous’ settlement (5). Lofland shifts this lightly, to define it as

a permanently populous place or settlement.’ … using “place” loosely and imprecisely enough that it is allowed to cover both those large, dense, and heterogenous settlements—past and present—that are visually distinct from their surroundings and those jumbles of variously sized settlements that are woven together into the urban blankets the U.S. Census Bureau calls “metropolitan statistical areas.” (7)

She is is also very interested in the stranger — ‘a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance.’ (7) She notes that this is different than many other texts on the city, where stranger means a cultural ‘other’, this is a curious distinction — the more curious the more I think about it. It assumes that at some level, someone of your own skin colour and culture is not a stranger, that you have more in common by definition than you might with the cultural ‘other’. In my own experience this has been far from true, I hope soon we may reach a point where this is not the automatic default.

From the city, she moves on to define public space – starting with a general dictionary definition: space which is open to all persons, in contrast to private space which is not open or accessible to the general public. Again, she shifts it slightly to look at the public realm instead, which is such a much more interesting concept really. A first take on it, is that it is:

constituted of those areas of urban settlements in which individuals in copresence tend to be personally unknown or only categorically known to one another. (9)

I love this thinking about ‘realms’ rather than simple spaces, realms are able to have boundaries of a more ‘protean nature’. They can overlap, coexist in the same space, grow or shrink or disappear. Lofland looks at three — the public, the private, and the parochial realms. Drawing on Albert Hunter (who I have not read), she defines private realm as (and italics are all in her original):

characterized by ties of intimacy among primary groups members who are located within households and personal networks…

She defines the parochial realm as:

characterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located “within” communities.” (10)

She continues,

what Hunter’s triadic distinctions allow us to see in addition is that cities are the most complex of settlement forms because they are the only settlement form that routinely and persistently contains all three realms. (10)

Now that is a really interesting way to think about cities and their definition, as well as what they make possible. Also interesting is how these distinctions permeate space rather than remain bounded by it. Lofland writes:

realms are not geographically or physically rooted pieces of space. They are social, not physical territories. Whether any actual physical space contains a realm at all and, if it does, whether that realm is private, is parochial, or is public is not the consequence of some immutable culturally or legally given designation (claiming, for example, this street is public space, this yard is private space). It is, rather, the consequence of the proportions and densities of relationship types present and these proportions and densities are themselves fluid. (11)


an empty public park has no realm… in a small city with a stable population and a very high “density of acquaintanceship” (Freudenberg 1986), what the outside observer might quite reasonably take to be public space (streets, parks, and so forth) may, in fact, be almost totally within the parochial realm. (12)

and also, therefore

the possibility that social territories or realms may, in general, be “out of place.” That is…if we extend his definitions just a bit [Anselm Strauss 1961] and define locations as “bounded” or identifiable portions of nonprivate space dominated by communal relationships (a neighborhood bar is an example) and locales as “bounded” or identifiable portions of nonprivate space dominated by stranger or categorical relations (an airport terminal, for example), then we can note that while locations may be said to be naturally “at home” when surrounded by parochial space, and locales when surrounded by public space, both are quite capable of taking up reisdence in alien spaces.

I love this, it gets to the nuances of spaces and how we inhabit them. It is flexible enough to sense different kinds of spatial inhabitations:

But if a group is large enough, it can … transform the character of a substantial portion of the space within which it is located. (13)

And how these shift in complicated ways:

Whether a specific place or space is considered private, parochial, or public is often a matter of conflict and/or negotiation. And spaces have histories. Even those that are consensually defined at one time may be redefined or subject to warring definitions at another time. (14)

…we need to face the discomforting fact that not only are realms unrooted, but their boundaries are protean, mercurial.

Of course, there is some connection between physical space and relational forms:

private realm — intimate physical space
parochial realm — some physical space is communal
public realm — some physical space is stranger or categorical (14)

I love — of course — how she then goes on to contextualise this in the historical development of cities. It very much echoes Sitte funnily enough:

…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain and northern Europe (and later throughout the rest of the world), the Industrial Revolution wrought a critical shift in the relationships between private, parochial, and public realms.

… a cardinal characteristic of cities prior to the eighteenth century — wherever they were located — was that a significant portion of their social life occurred in the public realm. That is, social life and public life overlapped in the preindustrual city to a remarkable degree… (15)

I am still getting my head around this because actually it is so hard to imagine sitting in a comfortable home so far removed from this daily reality. One of the reasons why I love literature. Everyone but elites walked everywhere (this struck me so much reading Dickens for example). Also it was in the public realm that women once secured the water for the household, disposed of garbage and body waste (the public realm consisted of outhouses at best…lovely thought). At the same time private space was cold, damp, crowded, uncomfortable…

For many people to be in the public realm was to be warm instead of cold, cool, instead of hot. It was to breath air–however bad–less fetid that the air of one’s private quarters. It was to move into space — however teeming with people — less cramped than home. In sum, the preindustrial city was overwhelmingly a city characterized by the dominance of public life. (16-17)

So along with the relations of labour, the Industrial Revolution also changed so much about the city itself, Lofland argues that through it:

…new possibilities for enlarging and strengthening the city’s private and parochial realms emerged. (17)

Somehow it seems intuitively I had been assuming the opposite without analysing it. Lofland notes the two principal characteristics, which form this change:

(1) innovations in forms of transport allowed this city to be much larger in area than its preindustrial ancestor… and (2) innovations in construction and communication allowed this city to enclose many more activities than had cities of the past. To put it briefly, these two characteristics — enlargement and enclosure — together made possible the separation of workplace from place of residence, made possible the development of highly specialized and large workplaces … made possible the development of homogeneous and large areas of residence (e.g. working-class neighborhoods), made possible the siting of much round-of-life activity within the place of residence or neighborhood, and eventually, with the…automobile, made it possible for an individual to connect pieces of widely dispersed space without the necessity of actually being, in any socially meaningful sense, in the intervening spaces. … it became possible for large numbers … to spend significant portions of their lives entirely in the private and/ or parochial realms. (17-18)

So much to think about here, and it is only the first few pages, so more is forthcoming.

[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)

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