Public space and vicarious embarrassment (I)
The old Aristotle said that humans are political animals. What does that mean? Well, that they need to associate, live together, generate opportunities to relate to each other, work together. And all of that gels in the city (polis).
Therefore, cities are not only the source but also the consequence of politics. Human relations are urban relations. Politics (polis), urbanity (urb), civility (civis). Politics = urbanism.
Civility is the citizen who lives in the city and needs to reach an agreement with her neighbours. The villain lives in a village, has no direct neighbours, and needs not reach an agreement with anyone.
Everything surrounding the villain is hers, her own property. And everything surrounding the citizen is everyone’s. It’s public.
The villain is the “no trespassing”, “beware of the dog” and “no foreigners admitted”. The citizen is “welcome” because of “strength in numbers”.
The villain, if she feels like it, when she feels like it, fixes her own water cistern with her own hands and her own money. The citizen pays, whether or not she wants to, with her money, together with everyone else’s money, for the curb that she has never set foot on in her life and never may.
The villain is the bad guy, the egotist, the scrooge. The citizen is the good guy, the caring guy, the helper.
It is of this social and civic solidarity that civilisation is born. From the civis and civic spirit.
Civis is one of humankind’s great inventions. Human’s cooperation (between and among those in the present and also between those in the past and the future) joining forces and intelligence in a common project is something unstoppable.
We enjoy a square because previous generations decided not to build over it and leave it open. And future generations will enjoy the parks we are building now. Thus, public space is not only what belongs to all of us synchronically, but also diachronically. This is how both our civic history and our faith in ourselves as a society gels.
This is what makes squalor a crime.
I am saying this because, for instance, I see fewer and fewer drinking water fountains and benches on the streets. When I was a boy, there were many more. Nowadays, the array of possibilities is much greater, but you have to pay. The streets are dotted with sidewalk cafés where you can comfortably sit down. If it’s warm and sunny there are umbrellas and even a cooling mist. The streets are more pleasant than ever, for those who pay.
It is also increasingly common to see small-scale sidewalk cafés. In principle they are provisional, designed to be disassembled. But they end up remaining forever, even when they are not being used in the wintertime. And they take up several parking spaces.
I don’t know how much money city councils earn in revenue with this, but I don’t think it’s enough to deprive us of all of this space and all of these services. Moreover, if the pavement usurped by the sidewalk café gets ruined, it will be all of us who will foot the bill.
The same thing holds for public parks, and beaches… Ah, yes, the beaches. Those loungers and beach umbrellas offered under municipally awarded contracts virtually don’t let us take out our own chairs and umbrellas. They reign over vast expanses. And the bars and restaurants privatise what was once all ours.
Our space, our civism, our citizenship is being hired out for money.