May 11th, 2010  |  Filed under Building BRC

The Street As An Urban Social Space

May 11th, 2010  |  Filed under Building BRC

[Metropol contributor Steven Young received his Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, where his studies included urban social spaces. He has recently earned his LEED GA certification, and works extensively in the San Francisco Bay Area. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Great streets of the world have a few things in common: space, people to watch, and places to stop and rest. The resting is usually the best part since it almost always involves eating and drinking. Pedestrian streets in particular have a vibrancy that emanates from the interactions taking place between the occupants. Streets are connectors, not only between places but between people. It is where we meet and it is where we act out our lives as social beings and communities.

Esplinade de Espana, Alicante, Spain

Esplinade de Espana, Alicante, Spain

The Esplanade de Espana in Alicante, Spain is akin to Black Rock City’s Esplanade. Alicante’s esplanade is an expansive street that goes on for miles, where strolling masses emerge from the city’s interior to take in the wonders of their community. It is the face of the city at the edge of the sea, with dense development on one side and the Mediterranean on the other; and it is where the occupants of the city find their connectivity. The Bund in Shanghai is also exemplary of the cultural vibrancy of esplanade walkways.

To gather in the streets is to know how you relate to your surroundings, to your community and to the greater universe. This grounding allows us to understand ourselves better as participants in a story greater than our own, and it allows us to relate and to gain relationships with those around us. Author Alan B. Jacobs writes “First and foremost, a great street should help make community: should facilitate people acting and interacting to achieve in concert what they might not achieve alone.”

The Bund, Shanghai, China

The Bund, Shanghai, China

Throughout history, the street has been the lifeline (as well as the sewer line) in the urban world. Streets are where we get our food, how we access our property and the means by which we understand and map our world. The Agora of Ancient Athens was the place where the real work was done to create an emerging equitable world view. The lawmakers, the scholars and everyone else gathered there to gain a sense of the social climate, to debate the meaning of the stars, and to decide upon the shape of society.

Wikipedia states: “The Agora (Greek: Ἀγορά, Agor‡) was an open “place of assembly” in ancient Greek city-states. … the Agora also served as a marketplace where merchants kept stalls or shops to sell their goods amid colonnades. From this twin function of the Agora as a political and commercial space came the two Greek verbs αγοράζω, agor‡zō, “I shop”, and αγορεύω, agoreýō, “I speak in public”. The word agoraphobia, the fear of critical public situations, derives from Agora in its meaning as a gathering place.”

Black Rock City's Esplanade at Night

Black Rock City's Esplanade at Night

The streets of Black Rock City – particularly inasmuch as they are primarily pedestrian- and bicycle-centric – run very much in accord with this conception of great streets. They connect us to the communal focal point of the Man, to Center Camp and to our community. The streets of Black Rock City organize our chaos, keep us from being lost in the night and ultimately lead to vital services (such as ice). But what they really do is give us a stage on which to live out our dreams, to test out our ideas and to come together in a way that achieves something greater than what we might achieve alone.

16 Responses to “The Street As An Urban Social Space”

  1. Sprite Says:

    This article articulates what I’ve experienced walking the streets of our local Chinatown. I’ve tried to explain to people how alive the streets are and how you can some of the most enlightening conversations with stragers, just by walking next to someone for a few minutes and having a bite or a pint together. Excellent article. I enjoyed it tremendously.

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  2. SuzKPA Says:

    ‘Author Alan B. Jacobs writes “First and foremost, a great street should help make community: should facilitate people acting and interacting to achieve in concert what they might not achieve alone.”’

    This has been Human Frolic Project’s goal as citizens of Black Rock City: fostering community, interaction and participation! Spontaneous music making, sporting opportunities and general pranking, with a cold beer always at hand. You can find us near 6 & G, we will be back again with enlarged borders, hoping to get to know you and have as much fun as frolic will allow :D

    Register your self/camp with Playa Info! Leave messages! Amaze your friends!

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  3. John Peck Says:

    North Toronto is losing one of its few open gathering spaces, Eglinton Square, thanks to developer Riocan and an ineffective city councilor, Karen Stintz. You have to wok to protect urban social spaces, no one will do it for you.

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  4. Glenn Lym Says:

    The Esplanade is amazing in it’s lights, noises and curve. The first time I laid my eyes on it, I had this total ‘OMG’ reaction that went on for an hour. Fireworks, a robot, great music, unexpected happenings. Yeah is pure public space.

    Some problems, most streets have place to stop and sit. But on the Esplanade there is only your bike or a nearby art car or art price. There are no benches. And the ones nearby are a part of a theme camp and ‘ownership or territory’ issues are not always clear. Would be nice to have Esplanade theme camps provide genetal esplanade benches.

    It amazing no one gets hurt on the Esplanade when the population ramps up and parties get heavy and bikes and vehicles proliferate.

    The bump at Center camp always confuses me. I like the way it let’s you feel that the man and the playa emmanate out from center camp and the way it breaks the Esplanade in half. But as you go around the buldge on the Esplanade, I get lost. In fact one might at 3am after a rain and dust storm, I groped with friends in the darkness and found ourselves on the first aid tent. And getting out from there to center camp was a total grope as in the complete darkness is was impossible to know where we were.

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  5. Glenn Lym Says:

    (continued from above)
    Somehow the circular plazas at the big radius streets like 9 or 3 sometimes work or don’t work depending on what is in them. 3′s is great when the robot has been there (wifi density issues these days mean he can’t roam far) or when the popcorn folks are open and the lines spread into the plaza. It’d be nice to encourage the temerity camps around these plazas to use them. Or put nenchese or art in them.

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  6. Glenn Lym Says:

    The circular street around center camp is amazing because it is the only street at BRC where what goes on in both sides of the street has been worked out. So it’s like a big circular plaza with a big heart and oasis I’m the center. And the perimeter of center camp doesn’t have an edge, it has zones of inner and outer. It invites you in. The bike racks are it’s extensions. The outer tarps invite and shade. And once inside you feel protected and in a womb, yet the place is really open.

    It’s dawned on me that 6 o’clock is set parallel to the standing breeze, so the curved tall plywood service wall both covers up the coffee service area of center camp and deflects the wind around center camp.

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  7. Pieter van der Vlugt Says:

    The problem with open public places & parks in Europe is that when a few folks get together to do (what ever) just like mushrooms popping up out of the ground so do the Cops, which is a little unnerving…..

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  8. larry harvey Says:

    This is a response to Glenn Lym’s first post. Thank you for your suggestion that the Esplanade be furnished with benches created by theme camps. We have previously lined the Keyhole with benches (and not ordinary benches, but art benches supported by an honorarium). Participants delight in using them. I think it would be quite appropriate to extend this practice to the Esplanade. Vesting this with theme camps seems only natural, since theme campers could best judge where to place them in relation to the frontage of their installations. To further this process, I’ve thought that we could encourage participants to submit designs that are easily assembled, sturdy and made from low cost materials, and these could be displayed for everyone to see on our website . This would spark creative thinking, especially if each theme camp were at liberty to decorate benches in a distinctive way that related to the theme of their camp. I believe that many people who stopped to rest while watching the world saunter by would eventually be drawn into the life of the camp.

    To those who might maintain that public benches only increase spectatorship, I can only reply that such a view is simplistic. The “No Spectators” dogma that is sometimes advanced, when extended to its logical conclusion, produces a world in which everyone is displaying themselves or their works, and yet no one is watching – thus leading to a kind of social autism. Spectating is fully half of participation, especially if, as with this scheme of theme camp supported benches, it integrates into a larger social fabric. After all, meditating on the world in all of its endless variety is one of the signal charms of city life (there, I’ve said it: I am an inveterate spectator).



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  9. BrotherMichael Says:

    When Burning Man asked for our feedback after last year’s event, my coomment was that I really enjoyed the benches surrounding the Temple the year of Basura Sagrada.
    It gave us a place to sit and contemplate the temple and the energy. There were no such benches last year.

    I think the idea of benches at major installations or fronting theme camps is an excellent idea.

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  10. SkeletonMan Says:

    +1. Benches on the Esplanade would be a great addition. Anyone calling resting his bones a spectator malfunction, obviously, is not human. Or have a great physique.

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  11. MissMaidenUSA Says:

    Benches are kinda foreign to me. I enjoy sitting on the Playa, or gathering a bunch of bicyclists together with blankets and stretching out on the ground. Benches……not-so-much. If they are added, I will adjust, but I don’t think we need them.

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  12. Johnny Mac Says:

    Thanks Larry on your bench and spectator comments. I’m a newcomer (’05 & ’07, ’10 tickets in hand!) but have friends (hi Rhett) that go way back & I’ve felt the pulse of the playa for a long time. I have also felt the sting of ‘spectator’. My favorite was a naked spray-painted fire-juggling dude who didn’t like me taking a picture of that fantastic art scene. WTF! I’m like, take a pill or stay home or don’t spray paint youself and juggle on the playa OR embrace the stranger. Nothing to loose but the anger, everything to gain.

    The bench concept promotes lingering (loitering in cop-speak) which can foster community OR trigger our US/THEM territory/ownership greed/fear basic instincts. What a wonderful setting to practice LOVE and INCLUSIVENESS. In a metropolis we must learn to share or become trapped with those fears.

    So let’s offer a space to sit and a space to grow out of our everyday fears and prejudices about spectators/strangers and learn/teach/love/share with each other. Today’s spectator/stranger is tomorrows spray-painted juggler!

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  13. jonathan Says:

    I agree with the suggestion that Burning Man would benefit from more benches, on the Esplanade and elsewhere. One tip. Try to make the benches unsuitable for sleeping on. Nothing wrong with dozing on a bench, but then there’s no place for people to sit.

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  14. Kuukiechristo Says:

    Jane Jacobs observes in “Death & Life of Great American Cities” that “this order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance–not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, an in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”

    This passage addresses the magic of a disorganized “old city” and how it works well when successful. The zoomed out BRC has a macro-level order which melts into Jacobs’ dance up close. This city, possibly more than any other, achieves some perfect semblance of that dance. When I come to the playa, have I come to life or art?

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  15. The Thing Says:

    I think it would be interesting to have benches on the esplanade designed sort of like teeter-totters, so if you’re alone (or not) you’d have to reach out to a fellow citizen in order to sit down. That would encourage some interaction within the community while allowing for some well-deserved rest and “spectating”. It also provides a sort of ice-breaker for those of us who are more introverted and need an excuse to talk to a stranger.

    Too bad I can’t make it this year cuz I love the themes of urban planning and the big city. I love the buzz of those special streets in big cities where there is just so much interaction going on whether it be passive or active. The isolation of sub-urbia (though I realize affordability plays a factor) in newer (especially north american) cities has pretty much ruined the great vibe of the organized chaos of the “old city” as described by Kuukiechristo.

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