Lyn Lofland: Relationships with and within the public realm

lyn-lofland-public-realmThe second among a series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm (part 1 is here) — packed so full of food for thought I don’t even know how many courses this meal will be. I just don’t know where I have been for this ongoing sociological discussion on how we inhabit public spaces. Maybe the room next door. Maybe the wrong side of the tracks. So you’ll forgive me if I catch up a bit through Lofland’s work…

We return to the nature of our interactions in human space, and Lofland’s rebuttal of  what she calls the ‘stimulus overload’ arguments of Simmel (read about those here) and Wirth (coming soon). We return to her favourite quartet of Gregory Stone, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman and William Whyte, who countered these arguments by showing the rich interactional life happening in cities. Lofland argues:

… public realm interaction is patterned because, far from “shutting down,” persons in urban space appear to be paying careful attention to what I shall here conceive of as “principles of stranger interaction.” (27)

She gives five such principles, which I have enjoyed pondering as I move about public spaces (and realms):

(1) cooperative motility — ‘strangers work together to traverse space without incident…’ (29) The dance noted by Jacobs. ‘Most of the time our movement through the public realm is simply uneventful, and it is so because humans are cooperating with one another to make it so.’

(2) civil inattention

There is, to me, a mightily perceptive quote from Erving Goffman on race, class, age, disability as exceptions to civil inattention…

for example, the “hate stare” that a Southern white sometimes gratuitously gives to Negroes walking past him. It is also possible for one person to treat others as if they were not there at all, as objects not worthy of a glance, let alone close scrutiny… Here we have “nonperson” treatment, in may be seen in our society in the way we sometime treat children, servants, Negroes and mental patients. Currently in our society, this kind of treatment is to be contrasted with the kind generally felt to be more proper in most situations, which will here be called “civil inattention.” (1963a, p29)

Lofland continues:

Civil inattention suggests that when humans in the public realm appear to ignore one another, they do so not out of psychological distress but out of a ritual regard, and their response is not the asocial one of “shut down” but the fully social one of politeness. (30)

This distinction between civil inattention and dismissal is such an important one, such a slippery one, it’s something I want to come back to.

(3) audience role prominence

An interesting quote of Suzanne and Henry Lennard’s Public Life in Urban Spaces:

Successful public places accentuate the dramatic qualities of personal and family life. They make visible certain tragic, comic and tender aspects of relationships among friends, neighbors, relatives or lovers. They also provide settings for a gamut of human activities. (1984:21-22, p 31)

(4) restrained helpfulness

…requests for mundane assistance and positive responses to those requests are the mundane “stuff” of everyday stranger encounters — so unremarkable that in many studies they are not even mentioned or mentioned only in passing. (32)

(5) civility toward diversity

One of the more interesting aspects of this principle is that it seems to excite remark only in its breach…Only the very few instances of observed incivility made it into my notes.

Interesting how the idea of realms impacts this:

Where the boundaries between the three realms are unclear or disputed or, even more simply, at border points between them, ruptures in the moral order are not only possible but are, under some conditions, probable. (33)

So… Unlike Wirth or Simmel, Lofland writes

Far from being a given, the absence of verbal or visual exchanges must be achieved. In fact and paradoxically, privacy, disattention, and avoidance can only be accomplished by means of principles-guided social interaction. (34)

This provides a strong disincentive for interaction — in polite and meaningful ways that help us all get through the urban tangle every day. What then provides incentive for the opposite in a positive way? The kinds of things you might like to foster as a planner or designer of space?

Lofland lists a few things that ‘either nullify the principles or provide legitimate exceptions to them.’

open persons: individuals who because of subordinate (child, disabled) or occupational (policeman) status or because of situationally specific identities (fellow American in China) are seen as more available for an encounter than others.

open regions: locales (for example drinking establishments, residence lounges of hotels, city streets during carnival, some cafes) in which all the inhabitants are mutually accessible to each other

triangulation: a term introduced by William H. Whyte and defined by him as a “process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not [strangers]” (39)

Dogs, children, art…those kinds of things. I remember that from his book.

This is perhaps even more interesting:

Finally, the public realm’s governing principles may be employed to express, to create, to re-create, to fabricate, or to refashion societal or regional or local systems of equality and inequality…. we need to understand that the principles themselves are instruments for communicating equality. To use them is to proffer to surrounding strangers the gift of what Goffman called “ritual deference.” (39)

She continues

In sum, to give other ritual deference via the principles implies that one understands them to possess a basic level of humanness… (40)

This means, of course, that the opposite is also true, ‘that their violation or misapplications are effective in perpetuating systems of inequality.‘ (40) This goes back to that distinction between civil inattention and either the hate stares or not giving people the respect of your attention. It is why I find this such an interesting thing to study and think about in terms of emancipatory practice both in planning and in everyday life…

To shift gears just a little though, the next chapter (The Relational Web in Public spaces: Persons, Places, Connections) contains a good summary of existing literature on the kinds of interactions taking place in public space (though it leaves aside the above question for the most part). Lofland writes:

As a social territory, the public realm is not merely the locus of rule-guided interactions, it is also the locus of a complex web of relationships. Some of these, of course, are created and have their anchorage in the private or parochial realms, as when lovers attend the theater of neighbours sit in the park. To understand what goes on in public realm space requires that we be sensitive to the presence, frequency, and spacial magnitude of such nonpublic relational forms. (51)

We need new vocabularies for relationship types, here are her suggestions:

Fleeting relationships: most representative in terms of sheer volume, of brief duration between strangers — “Can you tell me the time” etc. (53)

Routinized Relationships: often what sociologists refer to as secondary , she prefers routinized ‘because I want to emphasize the relatively standardized character of the interaction in such relationships — the interaction-as-learned-routine.’ (54) Regular customers at a McDonalds etc…

Both fleeting and routinized relationships are probably most fruitfully analyzed in terms of the interactions they produce. Viewed as relationships, they are too brief and/or too standardized to be of any sustained sociological interest. But both are capable of transformation… (55)

Quasi-primary relationships:

created by relatively brief encounters (a few minutes to several hours) between strangers or between those who are categorically known to one another. (55)

Chat between dog-owners for example.

Intimate-Secondary Relationships:

… unlike quasi-primary relationships, they are relatively long-lasting: running the gamut from from a duration of weeks or months to one of many years. Anyone who has done observations in public spaces…has most certainly encountered relationships of this sort, for example, among elderly persons who congregate in and enjoy encounters with the other customers of “downtown” restaurants… (56-57)

There exists a great relational fluidity — it is important to remember that these relationships are fluid, can move and change between between these forms, and not necessarily in a straightforward progression.

Lofland argues (and I have found this myself) that much sociological literature puts primary relationships before secondary, it makes the moral judgement that they are ‘best’. I think that is almost intuitive, at least for me as this makes me pause to examine my own understandings. Interestingly this has been challenged, and I think rightly. Lofland looks at Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) work on ‘the third place’ – “a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of work and home.” She looks at Sennet’s The Uses of Disorder (1970), and The Fall of the Public Man (1977). All of course arguing that public places matter, these encounters matter and alongside deeper relationships they are important for how we relate to both society and place.

There is more in here as well around ‘place’ as opposed to ‘space’, building on Edward Relph (1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), Lofland writes:

Places are especially meaningful spaces, rich in associations and steeped in sentiment. (64)

For many, (see Firey (1945), Herbert Gans writing about the urban village, Marc Fried’s (1963) work on displaced) place was private or parochial space, but Relph and Yi-Fu Tuan have opened up this feeling of meaning as it is also applied to public realms.

‘Towards a language of Public Realm Space” works to connect some of these ideas to the built environment and space. It tries to find a way to better study and understand

person-to-place connection in its own right and not simply to subsume it as a by-product of human-to-human involvements. (65)

Lofland looks at three different connections in this effort:

Memorized Locales: …small pieces of the public realm that, because of events that happened and/ or because of some object (e.g. a statue) that resides within them, take on, for some set of person, the aura of “sacred places” (65)

This is not so much in a religious sense, as in the way it holds importance — for example a ‘gay monument’ in Amsterdam.

Familiarized Locales: Paths/Rounds/Ranges: …refers to locales that persons encounter or move through on a daily or nearly daily basis and with which they establish a familiar relationship … makes possible the repeated fleeting relationships that transform strangers into “familiar strangers” … but even in the absence of these human links, the physical objects that compose and are visible…can come, with repeated exposure, to seem like old friends. (66)

Hangouts and Home Territories:

This builds on Marvin Scott (1967), arguing they are

…areas where the regular participants have a relative freedom of behavior and a sense of intimacy and control over the area. (69)

These can be public spaces, so in any public space, there may be multiple kinds of use occurring from those occupying it as a home territory to complete strangers and everyone in between. Thus the same space in the same moment of time can have varying feelings of place to different people present.

And of course, all of this sits within a larger context of life and space. The possibilities for different kind of relational webs within spaces depends on larger frameworks — the very different relationships to public space that the medieval city dweller had for example, but also the differences in relationship to space that might depend on other factors such as race or nationality.

There is just so much to think about here, and I am not yet done.


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

More on The Public Realm

and even more…



2 thoughts on “Lyn Lofland: Relationships with and within the public realm”

Leave a Reply