03 - Are public spaces really as “public” as they should be? ft. Dr. Setha Low

November 27, 2019

Dr. Setha Low, is the former president of the American Anthropological Association. She is currently Professor of Environmental Psychology, Geography, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Public Space Research Group at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she teaches courses and trains Ph.D. students in the anthropology of space and place, urban anthropology, culture and environment, and cultural values in historic preservation.

Pinar Guvenc  00:01

Hello everyone and welcome to the third episode of what's wrong with the podcast. My name is Pinar Guvenc, and I'm the managing partner of Eray Carbajo, and award winning Architecture and Design Studio based in New York and Istanul with a mission of creating concepts that address urban, social and environmental problems. Today we have the privilege of talking to Dr. Setha Low. Dr. Low is the former president of the American Anthropological Association. She is currently professor of environmental psychology, geography anthropology and women's studies, and director of the public space research group at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she teaches courses and trains PhD students in the anthropology of space and place, urban anthropology, culture and environment, and cultural values in historic preservation. Hi, Setha, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Setha Low  00:58


Pinar Guvenc  00:59

Today, we really Want to talk about, you know, our built environment and how it relates to human life and we want to hear your perspective on the subjects. And first, if you can introduce a bit about yourself and your experience. 

Setha Low  01:16

Well, my name is Setha Low, and I am a professor in environmental psychology, geography and anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and I'm also director of the public space research group. I actually got my PhD in anthropology, and then ended up teaching design. I taught landscape architecture and Regional Planning city planning at the University of Pennsylvania for 14 years and during that time, I realized that there were not many people, social scientists, like myself, and no anthropologists who were involved in the design and built environment world. It was really eye-opening and really changed who I was and what I do. So now I do everything from teaching, planning at Pratt or training PhD students in multiple fields. But all of it is about how people and the built environment interact and how we can make our built environment accommodate our social and cultural needs. 

Pinar Guvenc  02:30

So given your own, you know, experience and education, what problems did you start to like notice within our built environment that impacts human life? And I guess it can go both ways, right, like, how are humans impacting our built environment and how the built environment is affecting human life? 

Setha Low  02:50

Well, I think yeah, I think, you know, it's a huge question. You know, I think we have to sort of I mean, of course, the physical and social environment and people in their environment are constantly interacting. And I guess I have to say right off, I'm not going to talk about all of our impacts on the natural environment, which is really an issue of sustainability, even something like ecological sustainability. Sometimes we overlook how the built environment does not necessarily accommodate different people and the needs they have to be in the world. So there really is something about the built environment, not necessarily providing spaces for people, their cultures, their behaviors, their traditions, their hopes, their dreams. And that's what I became initially interested in. Early on, I started working in lots of public spaces, I guess, because I was teaching landscape architectures on neighborhoods in particular and often neighborhoods with large parks and the first thing that I became really fascinated by is how those parks, how people had difficulty coming together, that parks often became dangerous or not well used, or there were conflicts in those parks, and that it was so different from Latin America where I had done my dissertation. And I was really used to public spaces being a place where people came together, to learn, to know each, often had conflicts in some cases, but in general, you know, practice democracy on an everyday level, and the cities in Latin America are built in such a way that most neighborhoods would have a plaza or a park that was really socially important and a place where people came together. So when I came back to the United States, I really began to notice that in the US, these spaces didn't necessarily occur and when they did, at least back in the 70s and 80s, many of them were not really successful spaces and didn't accommodate the the activities that people really wanted to take on. So some of my first work was with students and studios, going out into parks and learning what people wanted and what they needed and what the problems were, and then working with communities to redesign the parks in such a way that they could do the things that they wanted to do. Everything from play on the swings in the playground, to having a place to rest and relax. Anyhow, many, many things. That was the beginning of my introduction to the built environment and people. 

Pinar Guvenc  05:50

And you're right in terms of I guess, like, I don't know, in our public spaces, like, do we really consider access or inclusion, and initially, the parks here in New York City were also designed to bring people together, right, like the ideal aways... 

Setha Low  06:07

I mean, that's I mean, that's the thing. I'm writing about that right now. Olmstead, one of our greatest landscape architects of all time, really did see the park as a place for people to come together and to encourage mixing of class and race and gender and to promote democracy. There is no question. But there have been a lot of planners and designers since that time who have had very different ideas from that very initial experience in parks, I really began to believe- and I still do- that for people to be sustainable- in other words, for people to have what they need- they need places for that to occur, and that the built environment really needs to accommodate that. And that's not something always on the agenda of planners and designers. They have a very different perspective. And yet if you design out group of people, they won't come and the space will be dead or whatever. But things even more dramatic than that, which you also probably noticed, maybe not so much in New York, but you would have noticed if you live in the south or in the West, which is by the 80s, the beginning of so many gated communities. And I got really interested in spaces that, in fact, explicitly were designed to exclude other people. They're design, the gates and the guards or parks in New York City that didn't want homeless or didn't want people who stayed and spent a day that would put on what we now call hostile architecture, you know, where you use the glass or the metal edges so you can't sit anywhere or benches with bars in between. I'm sure you've seen it. But instead of the built environment welcoming people in the ways in which I think our early designers imagined, in fact, we've become more and more afraid of each other, and then the built environment exacerbates that fear of others. 

Pinar Guvenc  08:06

Almost there's like this, like non-written code that people just stop using, or you don't see like a diverse group of people anymore. 

Setha Low  08:16

Some of it is built the built environment itself. But as you were saying, it's a subtle interaction, its people, designers, architects, managers, neighborhood people, who do put things in the built environment that then influences who uses it and who does not There is an interaction there so that how is it that you know whether you're welcome or not, let's say. When we, I actually judge a successful space by how diverse it is. Some people would argue with me and say it's not the only good thing that can happen. And of course, we need playgrounds for children and things. But at least in a city like New York or Los Angeles or Costa Rica, if you look at San Jose or if you look at Buenos Aires, that it should reflect the people who live there, and if it's just one group of people, and all the designing is being done for them, then I think we have a problem. And that becomes kind of, I become more of an activist for the built environment to welcome everyone, not just one group. Take a place like Hudson Yards. It's not built to invite everyone in. 

Pinar Guvenc  09:33

Hundred-percent, No. 

Setha Low  09:34

Yeah, no, it's being built for what? To bring in money, upper middle class, and then tourists, but it's not a place for local New Yorkers, and it was the last 22 acres of public space that we have left to develop in New York City. 

Pinar Guvenc  09:48

What do you think the city's role in this even with the development of Highline we saw the change happening in that neighborhood where so many people were pushed out of that neighborhood in general. And even though Highline is a public park, and it should be accessible to all, we see a majority of the crowd being the I guess, the Hudson Yards crowd, and also tourists, right. And the neighborhood and the buildings around this development, the architecture is just very high end. How could the city sort of push back on it? Because the city normally tries to regulate these through incentives or just regulation, but it feels like they really just were not involved, or they just encouraged high end development.

Setha Low  10:36

Well, I mean, there there is a brand new book called Capital City by Sam Stein that sort of outlines how, in particular, New York does it. There's also a book by Julian Brash called Bloomberg's New York, which had a lot to do with what you're seeing today, which really talks about, as Sam says, an unholy relationship between governance, between our government and developers, and that we have become, as a city, quite dependent, as has I might add LA and to some degree Chicago, on the developers to provide a lot of our infrastructure. And because of that, we bend over backwards to make sure that private developers succeed in what they want to produce. Unfortunately, the goal of developers is capital, is money, is profit. And not necessarily serving the poor or middle class I, I would really argue, of New York, much less I wouldn't say diversity, you know, the kinds of values that I'm talking about, diversity and democracy. Now de Blasio, our mayor really is very interested and he has done some really interesting things. As you know, he has redesigned 65 parks in his community outreach and redoing small parks, very small parks in poor neighborhoods that have not been renovated in 20 years. And he's going in and with his team, and renovating those parks. And we as academics and my students, part of the public space research group, are studying to see what happens because people are concerned that if you put money into a park and make it better, that it will only accelerate gentrification and that the people who live there will really not benefit. Again, we don't have all the- we don't know. In fact, some of our findings, Javier Pena is working on this and he was saying to me just the other day that it does look like local people do really enjoy having an upgraded park and do use it more and are excited. The long term consequences of gentrification are a lot less clear at the ground level. So and, you know, what I guess I'm saying is it's, it's really complicated. That government does try to come in as [de Blasio] has with this program and the parks department with their Parks Without Borders program. There are things going on that are really good at the city level, but they don't always. They don't always produce what people think they will produce and that there is this constant fear that it's not for us, it's for the Thems. The Them being, in this case, tourists and a certain class of people. I've almost said that there's a kind of moral geography in New York you know, that you end up feeling if you don't have money that somehow you aren't welcome because we are so- in New York, I feel- concerned with making money, with profit-driven design. 

Pinar Guvenc  13:56

Yeah, I guess you can redesign a space could become a public park or you can renovate public parks. But what is the policy following up on that? If developers see a development opportunity where they can make money as a for-profit business, they would just follow through. But if there are more guidelines around, it makes the product that is expected around a public area, then there is only certain limits to what they can do, or private developers could be incentivized to build more either mixed group of products, right? 

Setha Low  14:34

I agree, I think but you know, what is interesting is that, that I don't think we know all the answers either. The reason I say that is I think I mean, there there is no question that we're being driven too much by profit in New York, and Hudson Yards is a great symptom. And I actually agree with you about the Highline, though others do not. That I really don't see it as a great benefit for local New Yorkers. But let's not, I won't go into that kind of argument, but I'm agreeing. But I'm also, what I'm trying to do with my work and which is more international than just New York and talking about public spaces Social Justice, is trying to change the mindset by which we evaluate these outcomes, and to provide better research - I mean, evidence - about the impact of privatization. A lot of my work has actually looked at, like the impact of gated communities, or the impact of hostile architects, or the impact of developers taking over things. And really looking at the evidence so we can say back to either developers or designers or the city that this has these kinds of consequences. And these consequences are not what we want to promote in our city. We want socially just places and these kinds of interventions to create that and these kinds of interventions don't. Right? I don't think it's always clear. Are we really saying that we can never renovate a park without it gentrifying? We don't know. Can we never design a really fabulous library? Like one in Queens, without it somehow - libraries are now important public spaces designing libraries becomes really important, right? I think they're critical. And they are where everybody goes, kids who come after school, seniors who don't have a place to go, homeless individuals is the place to wash. And this is all over the world. We need fabulously designed libraries. And yet if they're too nice, does that mean that the local population will lose them. I mean, this is a crazy situation we're in, if that's true.

Pinar Guvenc  17:06

That's so true. And you know, if a library is nice, or if a park is nice, it's not its fault, right? Like it's, the Highline is a beautiful project. But you know, the regulations around what's happening around it is really causing that gentrification, not by the park itself, nor a library itself. And it's, you know, across... Wll that's your job! You need to figure that out (laughing). That is your job because zoning doesn't do it. That's the other thing, right. But the other thing that I've been studying is what I call governance. I look at private, residential governance and co-ops and condominiums and other kinds of private developments, and looking at the consequences of different forms of government governance. It's not just the built environment, like you say, it's that we don't also have instruments, really good socially, just-based instruments to control what happens around it. Sam Stein is really recommending in "Capital City" rent control. That the affordable housing as part of these wealthy developments, he doesn't see is working. Other people are looking at land trusts as ways of holding land or buildings or community structures in common for a community. But our traditional ways of allocating space and allowing what is going to be built. And that's at a governmental level, they're failing us. They're failing us if your agenda is social justice, or public space for all, which is ,this is clearly what I've been trying to do with with my work, is to really provide evidence of why it matters. Right now, I'm writing a book called, "What is Public Space, Why Should I Care, and What Can I Do About It?" I need a better title. There are lots of books on public space. But what I'm trying to do is take my 40 years of research experience and outline in a kind of concise and to-the-point way, why public space matters to us anywhere, but particularly in cities, and provide the evidence. So whether it's health, or sustainability, or social justice, because I think public spaces are important to us in many ways, what about socializing your children? What about anyway, recovery after disaster? What about working spaces? We don't, people don't think so much about it. But public spaces provide us a lot in our everyday lives and then looking at very specifically of how public spaces are being threatened, including as you just said that some of the new ones are built in such a way as to attract development rather than to provide the health and well being that public spaces can offer us. And I'm writing about Robert Moses right now because I'm writing about Jones Beach, which is a very big important, very, very big, important beach for I would say, diversity and democratic practices. And of course, it was originally built in such a way that poor people were kept out by the heights of the bridges. The overpasses on the highway built by Robert Moses. Eminent domain in the United States is having more and more power to really, I don't know, I mean, Hudson Yards did happen against a lot of protests over many, many years. That's so true. 

Setha Low  20:50

Last piece of public space. 

Pinar Guvenc  20:53

Yeah. And I think you know, what, we may not realize here I guess because we saw that developement happening so fast in Istanbul that it's way clear now that the lives started to become more isolated. There's really no public outlet for people, or it's very insufficient. So I want to talk about... 

Setha Low  21:13

And there's a lot more fear there. 

Pinar Guvenc  21:16

Yes actually doesn't add to the security problem. Like it doesn't. I mean, maybe people feel safe in their gated communities, but because they're in a gated community, they actually have more fear. Right. Exactly. 

Setha Low  21:28

Well, that's definitely- my book definitely demonstrates that living in a gated community reminds you, and particularly your children every day, that others are who are outside are dangerous. It is pretty well established that and, and many people have done a lot of research that is, you know, with larger samples than I've worked with it. There's a lot written about gated communities in Istanbul, and Istanbul also has been tearing down, squatters houses that were built, you know, and putting in towers that don't get finished. I mean, there's a lot of development that is really not being thought out because it is an engine. It's like in China, a way to produce a lot of money and New York is not so different. We just, I mean, it's, it's, there's a larger class base to support it. 

Pinar Guvenc  22:23

But I do think as New Yorkers we're sort of aware of the problem, because as you said, it happens so slowly and over time, that gentrification, that it slowly is built on people, where in China and or like, Istanbul, we see it so fast that we know what could the problem be? I want to have a better understanding or like some ideas around implications on health and just psychology, human psychology, on lack of public space. 

Setha Low  22:53

Without public space, you will, in fact experience even greater segregation and homogeneity. We're a highly segregated city, New York, and you don't realize it because we have the subways and we have all these great public spaces and sidewalks and parks, where you do see people other than yourself. And I really find that the more you gate people and segregate people and have homogeneity, the greater that fear of the other is and the less likely you're going to have sort of robust social democracies. And in fact, I think you're seeing that with our president and the politics of the current time and all over the world. That the fear of others, the demand for greater security. I also write about spaces of security and the creation of security-scapes, and that more and more of our spaces are, you know, people want to feel safe and secure and that becomes the dominating design principle. And what does that create? Homogeneity and insularity, enclaves, fear, and it's promoted at every level. I mean it wasn't just 911. Everyone said 911 is what changed New York. Well, it certainly speeded it up. There is no question. There were people who left the city because of its diversity long before and changes in policing policy, changes even in the gating of public spaces. All of that is consequential. 

Pinar Guvenc  24:34

It's tricky too also because like, the reason why New York City is the number one tourist destination is also the fact that it's a melting pot. And I don't think it is clearly seen, the long term effects, that if it becomes this, like homogeneous city in the future, and doesn't have that diversity or that same energy, how is that going to impact tourism which is also a huge income for the city. So, yeah, I guess these questions are sort of like up in the air and yet to be seen. 

Setha Low  25:09

I think what we're saying is that you know that the built environment plays an important role, an important role along with the governance as you're saying and the policies and planning structures, in the lives and quality of lives of, of residents. I'm arguing that public space promotes flourishing in a society and in a city in multiple ways. And if you do away with it, it won't just have a psychological impact. It will have impact on health, it will have an impact on political practice. It will have an impact on people being able to work in the informal economy it will have an impact on children playing with one another and having spaces to socially, you know, to grow up and learn how to play with others, it will have all kinds of - it will have ecological consequences in that many of our public spaces can be green and can, in fact add to the permeable part of our, our city so that everything is not running off, the water's not running off and that we could use public spaces to improve everything from cities as heat islands to being a water reservoirs...on and on and on and on. And that in all these ways, a public space which is a kind of built environment is important. But as a whole, the built environment has an impact on us and as our politics change and our idea of what it is to be a citizen changes that will be reflected as well in the built environment. 

Pinar Guvenc  26:58

And we always wrap up with this question, I guess to sort of understand, you know, there are many, like, businesses that are starting off or organizations that try to address some of the problems in urban life. What would, I guess, what is just like a general advice you would give to the progress makers?

Setha Low  27:20

 Listen to the people! Because they are often right. I think the biggest thing that we have to learn is finding ways, as you say, to come together, but to listen to what people say they want and need, and not enter, in some way curb and control the desire for profit, which in many cases excludes a huge number of people, both in our city and in our world. 

Pinar Guvenc  27:48

Thank you so much says that this was amazing. It was really fun. Thank you for listening to our podcasts. Tune in next week when we sit down with Florian Gruning, founder and CEO of Powerplays to discuss how data science and AI enables future solutions in deployment and mobility. For more information on our events and podcast series, visit us at What's Wrong With dot XYZ

Mentioned in this episode:

Website: https://enviropsych.org/faculty/low/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sethalow

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