Posts Tagged ‘public domain’

I have just entered the chemist’s and obtained my queue ticket from the machine when the phone rings. I pick it up to answer – and realize that it is one of my students and that the matter is rather confidential. Instead of suggesting that I call him later, I walk out in the street, trying to make the conversation as short as possible. In the street, people are passing in both directions and there is quite a lot of noise. The student is quite persistent, so the discussion becomes much longer than I intend. After a few minutes, though, we reach an agreement and finish the talk. I return into the pharmacy and get a new queue number.

What is interesting here is not why I chose to accept having the conversation at this time. Probably it is a matter of wanting to be helpful and trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Instead, the crucial question is: What makes me exit the pharmacy and move into the street? Without much reflection, I consider the conditions of talking to a student about his work to be better outside, in the rather noisy pedestrian street, than inside. Apparently, I quickly make a distinction between these two spaces, which both of them could be labelled “public”, in a wide sense of the word. The pharmacy is relatively silent, with people waiting for their turn, some of them maybe a bit bored and perhaps inclined to eavesdropping. The street, on the other hand, is full of noise, with people closely moving by but never stopping. No one seems to observe me here, whereas in the pharmacy the call would have been noticed. Maybe it seems like a paradox that the most “public” place is chosen for the “private” conversation. But it’s not, and I have several arguments for saying so.


Architects (yes, I admit, I am one) have always been obsessed by the dichotomy of private – public. As an approach to questions of architecture and urban design, it has never been very fruitful. The introduction of nuances like semi-private and semi-public has not helped very much, because it falsely suggests a continuum between two extremities and conceals the complexity of action going on in diverse spaces. In texts concerning the public use of mobile phones, “privatisation” is a frequent term.

In the spirit of Richard Sennett, German social critic Zygmunt Bauman (2001) pictures how for instance spaces of transition, retail, and waiting appear to be “public yet non-civil spaces” where no actual encounters between their users occur. Bauman makes us aware of what seems to be an erosion of public space where strangers no longer seem to encounter other strangers. According to Bauman’s view, true public space is dissolving. 

As a way of dealing with the public, I rather prefer the term public domain, adapted to the context of urban culture by Marten Hajer and Arnold Reijndorp. In their book In Search of New Public Domain (2001), they define public domain “as those places where an exchange between different social groups is possible and also actually occurs”. This is quite an open and inclusive definition, but it has the strength of not labelling certain places as public per se but instead referring to activities: an exchange between different social groups. Rather than seeing public space disappearing, the authors discover an abundance of new arenas of (potential) social intercourse.

However, in this case their perspective is not very helpful. According to it, the pharmacy as well as the street are spaces that can be considered public domain. But that gives no clue to the distinction between those two spaces in terms of adequate behaviour (that is; the difference that makes me move from one space to the other when having a work-related call). According to Harrison White, it is the possibility of switching between different contexts of communication that is characteristic for public space (Sheller 2004). Therefore, it is not so much the exchanges going on between different social groups, or the maintenance of a certain kind of civil interaction, which is distinctive for public space, but rather the freedom of slipping between different modes of interaction. Subsequently, it is first of all the openness for many kinds of exchanges that is fundamental for those spaces we put forward as public. The pedestrian street affords a wide range of interactions; while the shop (in this case the publicly owned pharmacy) normally allows a more limited scope of communicative opportunities. 

In the context of the ongoing transformations of public space related to new patterns of mediated interaction (like using mobile phones), the ideas of “mobile publics” inspired by White open for new ways of understanding the actions of mobile phone users and their consequences for the spaces we share. It does not make obsolete other perspectives, but responds to phenomena like flickering between presence and absence, between contexts labelled “public” and “private”. 

Zygmunt Bauman (2001): Uses and Disuses of Urban Space. In Czarniawska, B & Solli, R (eds), Organizing Metropolitan Space and Discourse. Liber Abstrakt.

Marten Hajer & Arnold Reijndorp (2001): In Search of New Public Domain. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.

Mimi Sheller (2004): Mobile publics: beyond the network perspective. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume 22, 39-52.

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