A look into the impact of commodification on social mixing in public spaces
In her analysis of measuring public space, Georgiana Varna examines the roles of public space and what it has become (as a result of intentional or unintentional drivers). Her extensive research into urban design and the surrounding theories has led her to create a star measurement of public space. Given public space is so unique and subjective, it can be tricky to assess, however her measurement criteria successfully takes into account some of the key factors; Control, Civility, Animation, Ownership and Physical configuration (Varna, 2019).
An interesting point she picks up on is the perceived increase of commodification of public space and its potentially alienating repercussions (Varna, 2019). This concept goes hand in hand with the issue of social mixing and whether economic drivers impact our society in a positive or negative way. Let’s look into this further through the lenses of Control, Civility, Animation, Ownership and Physical configuration.
Before we start, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with what we’re talking about:
- Public space is a loose term which can be lent to almost any place where people gather, from the high street to your living room (Varna, 2019).
- Social mixing is what takes place in these public spaces, however in regards to Urban design, it can be viewed on a larger scale, as in the mixing of social classes in city districts (Lees, 2008). The ‘social unity’ is the degree of successful cohesion between different social groups.
- Commodification sadly also plays into this. As much as a city should be serving its occupants to the best of its ability, money will usually find a way into the mix. Through taxes, new developments, lower crimes rates etc. social mixing brings its own economic benefits or losses. Through the design of public space, certain wealthier or poorer groups can be encouraged or excluded from an area for financial gain, themselves becoming a commodity for the city.
The commodification of a public space instantly suggests it is in the control of a person or group. It could be a street vendor using a patch of public space to sell their wares, but it could also be a developer or government body controlling an area for financial gain or exclusivity. Control of an element of public space can originate from the desire to maintain the area as a desirable space and therefore encourage more footfall and consumers. However, this control (depending on how strictly it is enforced) can take place in the form of rules, signage and security, preventing users from feeling at ease. This can lead to less social mixing/unity due to a lack of ease or surprisingly more social mixing, in terms of feeling united through a sense of rebellion against the control.
Xu and Yang take an interesting look at this in their analysis of China’s gated cities. The walled wards of the city under feudal monarchs and the enclosed working units under the PRC were very much a statement of control, in which the occupants were viewed as commodities, in their function as slaves or workers (Xu and Yang, 2009). However, this oppression often led to strong mixed communities given they were unified under their common plights.
In contrast, public spaces which are controlled for the occupant’s benefit e.g. gated communities, lead to a sense of exclusivity, given the gated community implies it is a commodity in itself and therefore economically elite. This discourages social mixing through physical and social barriers, deterring casual passers-by from entering.
Professor Loretta Lees examines the potential of social behaviour/civility being a commodity, given the traits of the middle class are seen as desirable in terms of ‘being a good neighbour’ and obeying the rules. This plays into gentrification which often occurs under the guise of ‘urban regeneration’(Lees, 2008, p . 2449) . On the surface level cities often cite urban regeneration as an opportunity for new mixed income housing, with the supposed assumption that the middle class will come in with their commodity of civil behaviour and affluence, and eventually convert the existing inhabitants into good middle class citizens
. This thinking is however ultimately flawed and highly judgemental. (Lees, 2008)
These assumptions are highly dismissive of the working class, suggesting they are some sort of problem to be solved. They assume that social mixing will result in the finances and ‘civility’ of middle class ‘trickling down’(Lees, 2008, p . 2449) to their ‘impoverished’ neighbours (and therefore benefit the taxman). This flawed thinking is not supported by evidence. To the contrary research suggests this urban regeneration alienates the working class in their own neighbourhoods and eventually excludes them from the area to the inflation of costs and rejection by their new neighbours.
Animation is a key factor in encouraging social mixing, given activity often attracts more activity. Animation of public space is often achieved by creating an engaging, safe and people orientated environment (Varna, 2019). However there is usually an optimum point of animation in which social mixing is at its most successful, leading to meaningful relationships between people groups. The problem is greed and commodification can sometimes lead to investors seeing one district gaining popularity and over-investing in the area, leading to un-sustainable levels of animation(Jacobs, 1961). Jane Jacobs appears to have foreseen this issue she gave it the rather ominous sounding label of ‘The Self Destruction of Diversity’ (1961, p . 241). She is not naïve, understanding that anything pleasant or desirable will lead to competition and potentially ‘corruption through commodification’ or singularity (and therefore lack of social mixing) (Jacobs, 1961). However she views this as a natural process, just like the boom and bust of our economies, it isn’t ideal but we just have to make the best of it. She suggests that, as with all fads, eventually the desirable district will fall out of fashion and a new one will pop up, drawing the occupants away. (Jacobs, 1961) As a solution, Jacobs proposes an adaptive measure which rejuvenates districts at optimum points, causing a distraction from a recently developed district before it becomes a monotonous middle class zone with minimal social mixing.
The impact of commodification on social mixing can be either positive or negative when ownership is taken into account. Public spaces have varying degrees of ownership, some spaces are run by the city and funded by taxes, others are owned by private companies or individuals. It all depends on the intention of the owner of the space. Some developers of public space may view it as a money making opportunity and therefore design the space to attract only certain people groups. However some developers or cities may use their ownership for the benefit of the users, encouraging the users to feel they have ownership of the space. For example Metropolitan Thames Valley housing focuses on those in social housing, aiming to design for their needs. Their developments do often include mixed tenancy, but from a stance of prioritising the existing tenants rather than designing for the middle class. (Metropolitan Thames Valley, 2019) This aids in social mixing given the tenants feel appreciated and safe in their own space.
The physical configuration of a pubic place has often influenced the social mixing which takes place (or lack thereof) . However this means it can also therefore be used as a tool for potentially negative purposes. In the case of Park Spoor Noord, it was publicised as the creation of a pleasant modern green space for the adjacent deprived neighbourhoods of Dam and Stuivenberg (Weinzierler, 2019). However the provision of an attractive park which serviced the wider communities needs along with good connections was a bit too appealing. The park itself became a commodity with new luxury apartment blocks springing up across the park. In the 10 years since its competition, the park which was initially intended to be a hub of social mixing, has now become an exclusive region of Antwerp.
As you could have probably guessed, from analysing the impact of commodification on social mixing, it hasn’t been great. At the end of the day the greed or need for a better economy usually outweighs the needs of the users of a space. People groups who have less to offer financially are dismissed by the developers and are often the ones to suffer. They are displaced physically and socially with ‘social mixing’ used as a guise to bring middle class occupants into an area. However from looking at the research it is interesting that there can be some benefits to segregation, in terms of respecting the needs of a people group and leaving them in the comfort of their own space. Instead the social mixing appears optimum on the perimeter of these groups (lees, 2008).
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