Tag Archives: Lyn Lofland

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)


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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Lyn Lofland on Antiurbanism

lyn-lofland-public-realmSo I do believe that this will be blog three of four (see one and two), combining Lofland’s descriptions of antiurban scholarship and feeling as found in  The Public Realm. I recognised more of the figures from these chapters, but she looks at them in interesting ways.

First, the ways that this sentiment emerges on both left and right — for example from David Harvey (1973) writing that:

the ultimate villain for the Left is the economic system and its operation, cities per se … become the “intervening villains” as in David Harvey’s assertion that “cities…are founded upon the exploitation of the many by the few. An urbanism founded upon exploitation is a legacy of history. A genuinely humanizing urbanism has yet to be brought into being.” (1973: 314) (111)

I never think of Harvey in this way really, but of course it makes sense that for him the city is the locus of exploitation. From the right it is more clearcut:

From the point of view of the Right, cities are simply blamed in a relatively straightforward manner … for the failings that might otherwise be attributed to the economic system. Thus the existence of a black underclass, poverty in general, and crime are all defined as urban problems and, as such, not worth “throwing money at.” (111)

She looks at huge amount of literature n the negative impacts of high-density living — things it will be good to follow up for the next piece I’m thinking of writing — Baldassare (1983), Cholding (1978) and Freedman (1975) give summations of these, though dated. Other scholars, I think she is thinking in particular of many of teh social movement scholarship, trace the city’s negative psychological impacts. For them the city is often seen as a variable causing protest, conflict and violence (and these are all greatly conflated and all bad). This was challenged by Tilly. Who I still haven’t read but need to.

Lofland departs from all this to look at what she believes to be the true source of antiurban feeling:

I do not believe we despise the city of any of these oft-mentioned reason. Rather, I would like to offer the hypothesis that we despise the city largely because it is the only settlement form that has a public realm. (113)

This is because we judge the public realm with the moral standards of the parochial and private realms. Interesting. Do we? Do I? Have I been until now?

Lofland starts with what she calls the ‘Direct Assaults’ or the kinds of open attacks that have been made on the public realm, arranging them thematically:

The Presence of the Unholy and the Unwashed (116) — Based on Victorian ideas of contamination (particularly in encouraging women to stay home), views of poverty, homelessness. God knows this is still far too alive today.

Mixing the unmixable (118) — this is a place where different categories of people mix together (oh no!), this is fear is broader than, but includes the fear of, the most poor. She doesn’t talk much about race, but this clearly includes the ‘Other’. She describes:

The idea that there is a social territory in which various types or categories of people whom a deity, nature, tradition, etc., had intended to remain forever separate are allowed to mingle provides the occasion for much agonized hand-wringing… (119)

The Sacrilegious Frivolity of Uncontrolled Play: (121) I rather love this one, as will situationists and performance artists everywhere.

In the public realm, the argument goes, the unquestioned virtues of sobriety, industry, rationality, diligence, and so forth are not only challenged, they are discarded. (121)

Political Anarchy: Oh yes…

… it will seem particularly attractive as a site for politics to those who cannot command significant private space… the unmonied — the outcasts, the dangerous classes, the unworthy poor, the mob, the unwashed masses, the proletariat, the underclass — in short, to all those urban folks who … inspire fear in the hearts of authorities everywhere. (124)

Then there are the ‘Indirect Assaults’,  where the target is another issue, but the public realm gets drawn in. ‘Preserving the Gentler Sex’ (128) and the appropriate conduct of women, ‘Leading Men Not Into Temptation’ (129) and the Victorian anti-prostitution movement, ‘Prohibiting Demon Rum’ (130) and the temperance movements, ‘Protecting Innocent Children and Corruptible Youth’ (131) are the examples she gives. It is clear that the city has been a something of a villain in all of those movements, this is making me remember Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets among other works …

The focus to this point has been on larger antiurban social movements, in the next chapter, however, Lofland moves to individual feeling and the rise of value give to private space.

In trying to understand this, she distinguishes privatism from privatization as the individual preference for private space. This shift is made possible by the changing technological innovations that have allowed a withdrawal from the public realm (and also the parochial realm) in ways impossible for all but the very wealthiest before — cars, a weekly shop at the grocery store rather than regular stops at  the local market, entertainment through radio and television to be enjoyed in the home, all of the things that work to create ‘cocoons of privacy’ (145). She also notes that this emerges from a:

social-psychological condition… the extremely high value modern Western humans in general, but Americans in particular, seem to place on intimate (read, “authentic”) relationships. … Richard Sennett has long argued not only that there is such a preference but that it leads to a dismissal of more impersonal public–and even parochial–relationships… (145)

This hierarchization of relationships — something that so fascinates me because I think I have been just as guilty without thinking about it — is key in making growing privatism possible. Lofland argues that it connects to consistent feelings of fear and loathing of streets and the way they are filled with strangers — and that this is what is driving the many attempts to control public space so visible in both our histories and in our present. While difficult to prove how this connection works, Lofland argues that there seems to be something connecting anti-urbanism and privatism, the built environment and people’s feelings.

This leads into a discussing of ‘Control by Design’ or the way architecture is used to control (or destroy) the public realm —  a lot of work has been done on this since she was writing, I think, but this is still so insightful, drawing on the already existing  wealth in literature (as of 1998) about how to control people and access to public spaces — particularly the poor and the ‘other’. Lofland describes 4 conditions that she believes must be met before

…genuine control of the public realm can be accomplished architecturally: First, a specific set of political, economic, and legal arrangements must be in place and accompanied by, second, cultural attitudes that support, third, a large number of construction projects that are, fourth, large in scale. (193)

All of these brought together could be able to control or purify the public realm. A lot. But they have come together in the dream of what Lofland calls the “private city” as described by Le Corbusier, visible in Brasilia, or the Barbican. Present in the massive building of suburbs in the US. Why did I never encounter this before in literature of the suburbs? She looks at the five critical deign elements:

Megamononeighborhoods (200) – specialized and segregated land use, sprawling suburbs that may have public spaces in them, but Lofland notes few qualify as public realm. Strangers have no reason to go there, and are actively discouraged

Autoresidences (201) – characteristic of the megamononeighborhood.

…the peculiar fact that a significant proportion of houses built since 1945 have as their dominant feature the prominence of the garage.

Autostreets (201) – made for cars, discourage walking, cycling

Antiparks (203) – the non-residential megamononeighborhood — industrial parks, business parks etc, landscapes without people

Megastructures (204) – interiors full of what Lofland calls counter-locales for control of people using the space, but in the larger city they work to ‘reduce, destroy or inhibit, the creation of street life outside its walls.’ (204)

Lofland uses this image — Sketch of ‘Radiant City’ from Le Corbusier (1929) to illustrate exactly what she means. I have always found Le Corbusier chilling…


Lofland brings more concepts to the fore — what she calls ‘sanitary design’ and the counterlocale. Earlier she defined locales as bounded nonprivate space where people were likely not to know each other. I love her definition of counterlocale (though more terminology always makes me worry):

locales to which both entry and behavior are monitored and controlled so as to reduce the possibility for discomforting, annoying, or threatening interactions. … counterlocales are “purified” or “sanitized” locales. (209)

This is such a familiar kind of space. She continues

Again, it took the massive postwar building program in the United States to transform a weak and insignificant strategy for taming the public realm into a colossus. (209)

She then defines four principal mechanisms to ‘rehabilitate’ spaces (for evil), or make them counterlocales:

Privatization. Growth of megastructures has ensured ‘what was once permeable has become impermeable. Once inside the megastructure, the individual is fully in privately owned space…’ (210-211)

Shadow Privatization. (211) Through public-private partnerships, where public space given under some level of private control, or in return for some kind of subsidy, private spaces are opened to some degree to the public. BIDs an example of the first, privately owned plazas made semi-public an example of the second. Some of these made deliberately uninviting to discourage use.

The “Panopticon” Approach. The use of surveillance.

The “Hideaway” Approach. (214) Where ‘public’ plazas are tucked away and hidden, like in LA above the main streets, surrounded by imposing high rise offices.

Then there is camouflaged control — Disneyland kind of spaces, mall spaces.

All so familiar. All things I have studied, but wish I had found this earlier, as it is so helpful thinking about this historical context and the difference between public realm and public space, as well the role (and fear) of strangers.

To end, something that surprised me though it shouldn’t have, her discussion of just how many sociologists have fought the idea that space has any impact on society. Very curious indeed to me, but a wealth of citations. I think ‘the spatial turn’ has changed all that, but it seems worth remembering.

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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)

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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)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…