Lyn Lofland: Aesthetics & Cosmopolitanism of the Public Realm

lyn-lofland-public-realmI end these series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm on a positive note (also see posts one, two and three). She bases her book based on the ‘root assumption … that the public realm has social value.’ (229) I will wrap up with her look at the aesthetics of city spaces, as well as the positive aspects they bring to our lives and to our societies as a whole.

First, aesthetic pleasures:

By aesthetic pleasure, I am referring to the experience of enjoyment occasioned by certain (mostly) visual qualities of the built environment. (78)

It is interesting that Lofland’s own analysis of the city’s cuilt environment and spaces doesn’t really intersect with those of Alexander, Cullen, or Sitte with whom they share much in common, but it is a good list.

Perceptual Innuendo:

…the pleasure that arises from glimpsing a small piece of the built environment, a glimpse that suggests that an interesting, exotic, weird, enticing, possibly enchanting social world exists just outside one’s range of vision. (80)

Unexpectedness:

There is research suggesting a fairly strong preference for urban places that are “familiar”…for some individuals at least, the opposite of the quality of familiarity — unexpectedness– seems also to appeal… the issue becomes not one or the other, but how much of one, how much of the other… (81)

Also note the fact that a very fat cat named Tidly used to live in London Paddington’s lady’s loo!

Whimsy: Fanciful, frivolous, eccentric street furniture or sculpture — she uses Prince Albert Memorial as an example, I confess I am slightly unsure of its suitedness.

Historical Layering/ Physical Juxtaposition: Again London is a prime example, ancient buildings alongside modern.

Crowding/ Stimulus Diversity/Spectacle: Self-explanatory

These are the aesthetic pleasures of the city, but Lofland also argues there are interactional pleasures in the ways that  people populate the built environment. I like this list too…

Public Solitude: often described negatively, but if so many people seek it out, surely might be because it is enjoyable, being surrounded by the hum of conversation, being part of a crowd

People-Watching: catching glimpses or snatches of conversations about other people’s lives the ways perceptual innuendo aloows glimpses of anticipated elsewheres

Public Sociability: found in secondary interactions, regular pubs or cafes etc

Playfulness/Frivolity/Fantasy: humour, flirting etc

In many ways this list is a bit similar to the list of things campaigns have directly attacked about public space. Which is interesting.

To move on to the value of the public realm itself beyond the aesthetic. Lofland looks at the wealth of literature (cites Fischer 1982, Wellman and Wortley 1990, Berger 1977) on the value of the parochial realm, of ‘community’, neighbourhood, kin and friend networks, organisations, which all testify to

our certainty that the parochial realm gives us a degree of physical and emotional safety; enlarges, while still containing, the world of our growing young; provides us with affirmation of our personal worth; and “mediates” our linkages to the powerful nation-state. (229)

She notes in addition the feminist critique of the dangers of the city for women, but cites Elizabeth Wilson (1991: 7,10) on what the city provides in addition:

The city offers women freedom . . . Surely it is possible to be both pro-cities and pro-women, to hold in balance an awareness of both the pleasures and the dangers that the city offers women, and to judge that in the end, urban life, however fraught with difficulty, has emancipated women more than rural life or suburban domesticity. (230)

Lofland also argues that city generates cosmopolitanism, that it

produces — by its very nature — a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility … (231)

The idea of cosmopolitanism, has, of course, been much studied since 1998 and the best of it getting at this kind of dynamic rather than simply the mobilities and diversity of privilege. Lofland loves lists almost as much as I do I think, and makes what she calls an ‘Inventory of Utility’ (231) or 6 uses or functions of the public realm — another very useful list:

  1. An environment for learning
  2. Respites and refreshments — places to sit and rest, drink, enjoy
  3. A Communications Center — places to meet, talk
  4. The “Practice” of Politics — builds on Sennet’s arguments around public space and how they build citizenship
  5. The Enactment of Social Arrangements and Social Conflict — public dramas and spectacles
  6. The Creation of Cosmopolitans: ‘claim that city living — by itself — generated tolerance and civility, that city living — by itself — created cosmopolitans … one of the linchpins in the argument that cities are good places to live.’ (237)

She then digs deeper into this idea of cosmopolitanism and what facilitates it, looking at both the negative and positive tolerances that are generated in city life. To start with what studies seem to show are the negative tolerances and the ways that they are generated:

  1. People share a larger bounded space but not the smaller pieces of it (238) — Robert Park’s descriptions of urban mosaic where people remain almost invisible to each other
  2. People physically share smaller spaces within the larger space but segregate themselves from one another symbolically.  (238) Visible in preindustrial city, where classes for example shared space but did not interact

I need to think more about those. This is not just indifference, but self-segregation, even if at a small scale …. I don’t think this has to be part of how people react to the public realm, but rather reflects the divisions in the larger society, particularly the US. On to what generates positive tolerances:

  1. Diverse people are not segregated into homogeneous enclaves and are forced to settle whatever conflicts arise among them without recourse to centrally imposed instruments of order. (239)
  2. People have mastered the complexity of the urban environment sufficiently to move through it with a high degree of psychic safety. (239) … the mastery of shorthand methods for accurately interpreting who people are and what they are up to allows urbanites to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner … and thus allows them to confront the heterogeneity of the city with a minimum of distrust and fear.
  3. The levels of community closest to the actor (the home, the immediate neighborhood) are secure and nonthreatening. (240) People have to be able to withdraw to safety.
  4.   People are able to control the character and quality of their contact with diverse others. This can’t be forced.
  5. People possess certain demographic characteristics. those characteristics themselves generating a capacity for tolerance. (240) The literature talks about these demographics being highly educated, high status, single, childless… this seems wrong to me, very wrong, I mean look at the conviviality of working class neighborhoods. But researchers tend not to come from those neighborhoods, and they aren’t all convivial I suppose. Dearborn in the 50s for example. Anyway.

An interesting list. More interesting is the way that cosmpolitanism as a positive force emerges not from those relationships more privileged by most social scientists, but from fleeting public ones:

The learning of tolerance, the creation of cosmopolitanism may require the existence of and repeated experience with “nonintimate,” “noncommunal,” relationships. Limited, segmental, episodic, distanced links between self and other may constitute the social situations that both allow and teach civility and urbanity in the face of significant differences. And this assertion brings us to the matter of the public realm. (242)

Also interesting is the list of potential ideal conditions for the creation of cosmopolitanism, what Lofland calls a ‘highly regulated urban anarchism’

  1. City should be small and compactly settled, pedestrian or mass-transit oriented, people share public realm in pursuit of everyday activity
  2. Degree of segregation of people and activities minimized
  3. Differences between people must be seen by them as ‘meaningful’ — they must be encountering people with whom they disagree, disapprove, or fear mild fear .. the city must have a hard edge as opposed to DIsneyland city
  4. This hard edge cannot be felt to make public space feel so dangerous, people do not venture into it (243)

I like the emphasis that it cannot be a fully safe space, that it has to be full of strangers and challenging to people’s prejudices, that it has to minimize segregation and homogeneity…

All in all, I found this an immensely useful and thought-provoking work that I hope to think through further…

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

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