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Urban paper calls for celebration of public time


Katherine Shonfield - architect, writer, and aj columnist - has published a paper entitled At Home With Strangers which calls for a radical change in the way planners and urbanists think about public space.

The crux of the argument is that all time spent outside work and home - including activities such as commuting to work or waiting in a queue - is public time and should be celebrated as such. Similarly, public space is not simply space left over once buildings are complete, but is what Shonfield describes as 'the spatial experience of democracy' - where a wide variety of activities and encounters are made possible.

Suggestions as to how this 'new urbanity' could be encouraged range from views on means of representation - the Noilly Plan, which indicates interior as well as exterior public spaces, offers a more illuminating view of how the city functions as a public space than conventional maps - to views on preferred building types. A diagram of tower blocks turned on its side shows that towers work in the same way as cul-de sacs, hindering chances for interaction and movement across the city. There are also specific recommendations for ways to make all time outside home or work either empowering or enjoyable.

Shonfield views the traditional concept of 'building type' as stultifying, arguing instead for a multiplicity of uses. Hospitals, already a great social equaliser, could take on a greater role by, for example, capitalising on their knowledge of health and running a leisure centre, bus stops could serve their captive audiences with public telephones, drink machines and cashline points and Internet facilities combined. Pubs could broaden their community role by offering homework clubs, childcare facilities, and meals on wheels - a steady source of income providing some protection from the notorious fluctuations in takings.

Commissioned by Comedia in Association with Demos, At Home With Strangers is one of a series of working papers 'intended to create discussion and debate', but the arguments seem capable of bringing about real change, not least because they appear to be economically viable. As the recent introduction of private medi-centres at railway termini suggests, where there is money to be made, the market is developing in ways which are in tune with Shonfield's social agenda. But guidance - reduced rates for buildings which serve a variety of public uses is one suggestion - is necessary if the community as a whole is to gain.

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