As I read about the new idea of social space – new in the sense that it only recently has been named – I found myself considering what “space” actually is. The most pertinent Merriam-Webster Dictionary online definition is, “a limited extent in one, two or three dimensions.” Quite straight forward. Obviously we’re talking about three dimensions, but the key here is “limited.” Space has bounds. Eric Britton, the editor of the website World Streets points out that we typically only refer to space as either public or private, and they clearly have boundaries. Private property does not overlap with public property, and vice versa. But by only seeing space as private or public, we only understand it in terms of property rights, and that limits its capacity. Because there is a limited amount of space, it must be used expansively.
By expansive I mean making it available to the broadest number of people reasonably possible. Separating uses, as is so often done – including private and public – encourages car use and discourages people from using the space fully, by, for example, walking, window shopping, reading, talking, eating and biking. Instead of isolating all of these uses, it is much more efficient to create space, such as on streets or sidewalks, that enables them to occur. But it isn’t just for efficiency. People are social. We enjoy, for the most part, being outside, near others.
This has great transformative power for street design. If we think of streets – including all the rights-of-ways – as social space, we can make so much more vibrant and inclusive. The typical public space of the road that only shuttles cars back and forth suddenly becomes a social space with benches for resting and talking, maybe a small park, and a continuous area for spontaneous interactions and observations that keep us attuned to and interested in the world around us.