Archives for category: public space

Everybody seems to be speculating about the ongoing implications that social distancing will have on urban life. So I thought I’d look at Edward T. Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension, published in 1969, and seen as the foundational work on the topic of what he called ‘proxemics’.  The ideas first sketched out here have come to influence lots of fields – anybody learning to make films, for example, will be taught all about ‘character proxemics’ (how to position actors and objects in relation to each other), and ‘camera proxemics’ (the effects of having different distances between the camera and the subject). But I hadn’t heard of this book, until I saw it mentioned in a student essay that I was marking.

Hall drew on his research among middle-class white North Americans, to identify four categories of distance (intimate, personal, social and public), each with a ‘close’ and ‘far’ phase:


Close phase (direct contact)

  • The distance of comforting, protecting, sexual relations, wrestling, etc.  Smell and body heat are important alongside vision of small details. Speech typically takes place through whispers.

Far phase (6-18 inches)

  • Still possible to detect smells and body heat.  Conversational volumes are low. Tactics are needed to deal with situations (eg a packed train) which force us to be this close to strangers.


Close phase (1.5 – 2.5 feet)

  • Still possible to touch or hold the other person. A person might feel jealous or suspicious if they saw their partner holding a conversation with somebody at this distance.

Far phase (2.5 – 4 feet)

  • “At arms length” – just outside easy touching distance. Often used to discuss personal topics.

Social distance

Close phase (4 – 7 feet)

  • Common for discussing impersonal business; typical distance between office workers’ seats; or between people at a networking event, etc

Far phase (7-12 feet)

  • “Can be used to insulate or screen people from each other” – the distance at which people can share space without feeling the need to converse. The finer details of people’s faces are lost.

Public distance

Close phase (12-24 feet)

  • roughly the distance between most audience members and a speaker in a small meeting or seminar. Grammar and syntax tend to be more formal than at closer distances. Possibility of easy escape.

Far phase (25+ feet)

  • “the distance that is automatically set around important public figures”. Amplified or exaggerated forms of speech. Body language becomes more important than the details of facial expression.

Hall is keen to emphasise that these distances differ across cultures (in fact, the main aim of his book is to suggest that we should pay more attention to cultural differences when designing the built environment, to avoid problematic forms of overcrowding).  Others since then have tried to measure such cultural/spatial differences more systematically – see eg Sorokowska et al (2017), who also distinguish between men and women’s preferences.

Anyway, the UK’s current regime of 2-metre (or 1-metre?) distancing places all face-to-face interaction outside Hall’s ‘personal’ distance range. I’ve been noticing how uncomfortable I’ve felt recently when conversations take a more personal turn (eg gossiping with a neighbour, or establishing rapport with a shopkeeper), but I and my interlocutor have to stay outside each other’s personal spatial zone. Or that I have to repeat what I’ve said because I’ve been speaking at a low volume, appropriate to the casual subject matter, but not to the physical distance. I feel less obliged generally to enter into informal conversation with others when I’m standing further away than usual (with face masks seeming to amplify the effect even more).

Perhaps that seems obvious.  In parallel, though, I was thinking about how I feel when reading this sort of text– it feels somehow typical of a certain genre of earnest non-fictional (but not academic) book published in the 1960s. I’m sure it would be slated if published today. Hall’s argument often proceeds on the basis of personal anecdotes and generalisations that might cause offence. He makes ambitious speculative leaps between different fields of enquiry, but leaves all sorts of assumptions unchallenged. Some of the ideas he draws on have been widely discredited; other points seem blindingly obvious to a 21st-century reader.  To my eyes, the discussion rambles in places, and lines of argument remain painfully underdeveloped. I might even say it’s not worth reading – except out of a sort of historical curiosity.

And yet, I rather like this type of project, where somebody is sketching out a brand new field, struggling enthusiastically to give written form to an idea for the first time.  I also enjoy the way that Hall’s writing style and points of reference feel a little alien after 50 years, even though the social issues he’s grappling with have contemporary resonance.  He takes aim at car-dependent built environments, and reflects intelligently on the links between urban design and social deviancy and unrest. He deals in presumptive categories and stereotypes, but these allow him to forward a progressive argument against the tendency to treat ethnic minorities as “recalcitrant, undereducated, middle-class Americans of northern European heritage instead of what they really are: members of culturally differentiated enclaves with their own communication systems, institutions, and values”.  He flags up the implications of new communications technologies; he speculates on the role that computing might play. And the activities and settings are all very familar.  His evidence base is populated by characters who work in offices, sit at cafés, travel on the train, have guests over for dinner, speak to each other on the telephone. A recognisable everyday social life that we lost, all of a sudden, at the end of February.

It leaves me wondering whether 2020 will turn out to be the year when the twentieth century finally ended.

London, 28 February 2020


Hall, E.T. (1969). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books

Sorokowska, A., Sorokowski, P., Hilpert, P., Cantarero, K., Frackowiak, T., Ahmadi, K., Alghraibeh, A. M., Aryeetey, R., Bertoni, A., Bettache, K. et al. (2017) Preferred interpersonal distances : a global comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4): 577- 592.

As part of the ongoing and remarkably extensive programme of beautifying central Moscow, an amphitheatre-style seating area (‘Яма’ – ‘the pit’) has been created around a section of the ancient city walls on Khokhlovskaya Ploshchad. It has become a very popular place for young people to socialise and drink alcohol.

This is interesting because drinking alcohol in public has been strictly forbidden in Moscow for the last few years. But it’s tolerated at Яма – a public space set aside for deviant behaviour.

I’d say this sort of liminal space or zone is quite common in cities: it’s probably easier to maintain public order by providing a specific spatial outlet for a given transgression, rather than prevent it happening anywhere. But what I found surprising here is that there is simultaneously a very heavy visible police presence in and around the ‘pit’. Yesterday evening, for example, there was one pair of policemen standing in the middle, another pair walking around the edge, six tough-looking guys in combat outfits, and two large police vans.

One conclusion, drawn also from my wider walks around Moscow, is that there is no shortage of police here: I’m sure the Metropolitan Police in London would be very happy to have so much manpower at their disposal. But also it struck me that what you could call ‘securitised-transgressive’ public space is an interesting ‘type’ that I’ve not read about before. (Perhaps the nearest thing I can think of back home is a music festival with lots of regulations and security checks.)

And I think this space has become so well-known in Moscow (and widely discussed) is precisely because it is full of contradictions and tensions. It always seems to me that the ‘publicness’ of space doesn’t relate to some notion of ‘freedom’, but rather describes, and is constituted by, ambiguities, processes of juxtaposition, and shifting contestations. The most ‘public’ of spaces, in other words, are ones which you’d expect not to work well at all.

Moscow, 13 July 2019


I’ve been looking after a dog for the last few weeks.  Walking around with him has made me aware of a whole layer of street activity that I had never thought about much in the past. As I write, there are all sorts of people taking looping, semi-random, leisurely walks around every local area, with a dog at the end of a rope.

Dog-human relations may seem a mundane and trivial topic, but it interests me that the family dog has an ambiguous status. While dog ownership epitomises domesticity, walking one is a very public act.  Rather than clearly indicating ‘rurality’ or ‘urbanity’, the dog blurs categories by “resid[ing] in an intermediate position between nature and culture” (Hirschman, 1994: 623).  Although dogs are barely visible in urban plans and designs, they are a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape; and in wealthier countries at least, dog-walking is a significant component in the activity that takes place in everyday urban public space.

Like when you first have a small child, dog-walking makes you realise that there are whole circuits of social interaction going on to which previously you had no access. Beyond the well-known way that dogs function as a ‘social catalyst’ (McNicholas & Collis, 2000), I’ve noticed that it rewrites – or makes visible – the unspoken rules of normal interaction in public space.  All sorts of people initiate conversations with you, including types of people would never do so normally: women my age or younger; small children and teenagers.

Of course, such conversations are almost exclusively about the dog. While dog-mediated conversations can, over time, lead to deeper human friendships (Wood et al, 2015), it would feel intrusive if a stranger began asking me personal questions during preliminary dog-induced pleasantries.  Even when, one time, some schoolboys started laughing because the dog (a Pomeranian) seemed an unusual breed for a man to be walking, I noticed they were looking and pointing at the dog.  To laugh directly at me would have been much more of a significant insult.

Still, it’s interesting that it should seem humorous or odd that a particular category of person should be walking a particular breed of dog.  The fact that dogs are somehow culturally coded is suggested if only by the fact that different dog breeds go in and out of fashion over time (Herzog, 2006). It is unsurprising to read that the cultural significance of owning a dog at all can shift quite rapidly among certain social groups (Caglar, 1997); that certain types of dog may work as conscious projections of social distinction, advertising wealth and social status (Hirschman, 1994); and that – in the UK – dog breeds, and particular behaviours and vocabularies associated with dog ownership, are revealing of their owners’ social class (Yuen-Lee, 2018; Hanson, 2018;, 2009). And gender plays a part too: one study found that “Owners use gender norms to (1) select what they consider to be suitable dogs, (2) describe their dogs’ behaviors and personalities, and (3) use their dogs as props to display their own gender identities” (Ramirez, 2006: 373). Public dog walking, then, seems to be a complex system of symbolic communication (Holman et al, 1981) through which social status and self-identity may be variously asserted or reconfigured.

I’ve also noticed that walking the dog puts me in a different relationship with my physical surroundings. Repeated slow walks whose only destination is their starting point, waiting for the dog to sniff things and pee on them, means you end up looking much more carefully at what’s around you.  All sorts of micro-observations about people’s front gardens, walls that need painting, tiny architectural details at street-level, irritating amounts of litter.  The types of things you miss on a normal day when you’re rushing to work.  It’s a mode of engaging with the local area which you usually don’t have.

Finally, I’m puzzled by how the dog seems very aware of changes in the nature of space. He’s unwilling to pass over a threshold into somebody’s front garden.  I can’t imagine a cat would draw that distinction.  How does the dog recognise the category of ‘pavement’?

Anyway, that’s all you need to know about dogs.  I’m going to miss him far too much when his real owner returns from abroad in a couple of weeks’ time.

London, 30 October 2018.


Caglar, A. S. (1997). ‘Go Go Dog!’ and German Turks’ Demand for Pet Dogs. Journal of Material Culture, 2(1): 77-94.

Hanson, W. (2018).  Is your DOG making you look common? Etiquette expert William Hanson explains how everything from your pooch’s breed to its collar can be VERY revealing of your background. Mailonline, 23 February. Available at

Herzog, H. (2006). Forty-Two Thousand and One Dalmatians: Fads, Social Contagion, and Dog Breed Popularity. Society & Animals, 14(4): 383-397.

Hirschman, E. (1994). Consumers and Their Animal Companions. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(4): 616-632.

Holman, R.H. (1981). Product Use as Communication: A Fresh Appraisal of a Venerable Topic. In Enis, B. M. & Roering, K. J. (eds) Review of Marketing 1981. Decatur, GA: Marketing Classics Press, pp.106-119. (2009). The breed of dog you choose shows which class you are, researchers claim. 30 May. Available at:

McNicholas, J. & Collis, G. M. (2000). Dogs as catalysts for social interactions: Robustness of the effect. British Journal of Psychology, 91: 61-70.

Ramirez, M. (2006). “My Dog’s Just Like Me”: Dog Ownership as a Gender Display. Symbolic Interaction, 29(3): 373-391.

Yuen-Lee, J. (2018). Dog Breeds Can Reveal Your Social Class. Get Leashed Magazine, 3 June. Available at:

Downtown Parcel Coded

Our new article, published today in Urban Research & Practice, and available on open access….

The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities


In response to policy-makers’ increasing claims to prioritise ‘people’ in smart city development, we explore the publicness of emerging practices across six UK cities: Bristol, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, and Peterborough. Local smart city programmes are analysed as techno-public assemblages invoking variegated modalities of publicness. Our findings challenge the dystopian speculative critiques of the smart city, while nevertheless indicating the dominance of ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘service user’ modes of the public. We highlight the risk of bifurcation within smart city assemblages, such that the ‘civic’ and ‘political’ roles of the public become siloed into less obdurate strands of programmatic activity.

Cowley, R., Joss, S., & Dayot, Y. (2017). The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities. Urban Research & Practice.


Amsterdam Schiphol airport doesn’t currently have its taxi facilities under control.  The fare into town is around €50, so it makes sense for most people to take public transport anyway.  But if, for whatever reason, you need to take a taxi, you have to enter a den of lions.

Apparently, the problem is that the taxi rank is located in ‘public space’ outside the airport (Jan Dellaert Square). The courts have ruled that it is perfectly legal for non-official taxis to ply their trade there.  Three or four taxi companies have licenses to operate from the airport: the others have to hassle people to attract custom.  And the non-official taxis apparently include some entirely unlicensed cars.  There are plenty of stories around of people being ripped off.

The authorities have at least managed to ban hustlers from inside the airport, and have set up an ‘official taxi stand’ outside, with lots of signs, regular (muffled) announcements about not taking an unofficial taxi, and has quite a few stewards outside with special yellow jackets on, directing people to the official stand. However, the unlicensed drivers also now wear the same jackets – there is nothing to stop them doing so. And, even in the official zone, people wearing fake official jackets continue to hassle you.  I decided I would take the bus instead.

Anyway, I thought all this was a good example of how conceptualising public space in overly normative ways may lead to practical problems.  A rather blanket ideal appears to have been legally enshrined, and used to determine what is permitted in this space.  But as a normative concept or ideal, public space – rather like the ideal of free speech – seems to fall apart at the seams when it is applied to reality. For me, public space makes rather more sense as an analytical category – or, more precisely, as a way of thinking about how spaces are differently public, and how this publicness is variously produced in different places and at different times.


Amsterdam, 22 January 2017


HDB flats in Punggol, Singapore

Singapore seems like an interesting place to study the various ways in which people manage to negotiate differences, and rub along together in everyday life. It promotes itself as a harmonious multicultural society.  Here, as published by the national Department of Statistics, are some demographic data from 2015 (rounded to the nearest per cent). Quite a mix:

Total population: 

  • 5,535m (of whom just under 30% are foreigners working, studying or living in Singapore without permanent residency status)
  • NB: the figures below relate to citizens and permanent residents only


  • Chinese 74%
  • Malay 13%
  • Indian 9%
  • Other 3%

Language most often spoken at home:

  • English 32%
  • Mandarin 36%
  • Chinese Dialects 14%
  • Malay 12%
  • Tamil 3%
  • Others 2%


  • Buddhism: 43%
  • Taoism / Chinese traditional beliefs: 9%
  • Islam: 15%
  • Christianity: 15%
  • Hinduism: 4%
  • Other religions: 1%
  • No religion: 15%

Over 80% of the population live in flats built by the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the national public housing authority. New flats are sold at subsidised prices, with priority given to first-time buyers, but can be sold later on the open market. HDB has been steadily building flats since 1960. (By the way, can we do that too please?)

What particularly interests me is that the government sets ethnic quotas on who can buy these flats, specifically to avoid any groups being concentrated in particular places (as was once the case in Singapore).  These quotas are the same across the whole island, updated monthly, and are set at both block and neighbourhood level.  There are also complex rules about who you can sell your flat to.  The basic principle is that, once a block or neighbourhood has reached the maximum proportion of a particular ethnic group, no sale is allowed which will increase that proportion (Wong, 2013).  Of course, people will self-segregate in all sorts of ways, as they do everywhere, and this will no doubt help reproduce social inequalities of different kinds.  And yet, to some extent, the occurrence of everyday encounters with different cultural groups, in semi-public and public spaces, is thus effectively mandated by the state.

How, then, do Singaporeans go about negotiating these differences, so as to coexist peacefully in these spaces? Junjia Ye (2016) explains that the principle of Gui ju holds the answer. In part, this describes a generally accepted set of behavioural norms – and the state has led publicity campaigns to prescribe “proper codes of conduct in Singapore’s public spaces” (p.92).

She also describes Gui Ju as allowing for social relations to be characterised by ‘civility’.  Civility, as understood in the West, describes the enactment of ‘tolerance’: rather than reflecting an easy-going attitude towards a given other, tolerance indicates the repression of dislike or disapproval (Hancock & Matthews, 2001; Bannister and Kearns, 2013). If we like or approve of a person, there is no need to ‘tolerate’ them.  And yet there are occasions when the limits of our tolerance – which need not be thought of as singular or fixed – are overstepped, and we react with anger.  Similarly, Ye suggests that the social codes of Gui ju may often be transgressed by unsocialised migrant workers (who, as mentioned earlier, make up almost a third of the population).  Fortunately, Gui ju also includes ways of dealing in a civil manner with these transgressions: in the politest way possible, the transgressors are informed that their behaviour is problematic.

At this stage, I have several thoughts and questions:

  • I am wary of reading Asian public behaviour as ‘civil’. At first sight, Singaporeans, Koreans and the Japanese for example appear to behave – to my western eyes – in a remarkably civil way.  And yet civility, as an English language concept, is very closely tied up with the ideal of the autonomous liberal subject, as Frank Furedi (2012) points out.  Something like Gui ju no doubt has entirely different roots – which are probably related to the more collectivist orientation of Confucianism (although I’m out of my depth at this stage)
  • In her article, Ye points out that Gui ju simultaneously allows for differences to be overcome, but also itself creates a “dominant ordering of space” which reinforces a “divide between migrants and locals by disciplining how people ought to behave” (p.97). Civility, similarly, has an ambiguous status: it may bridge differences but its limits also construct an inside and an outside. Civility may be a less homogeneous and more flexible principle than Gui ju, but I’m not sure whether we should think of either as ‘meta-codes’ for behaviour, or as straightforward normative delimiters of what behaviours are deemed acceptable
  • Reports of a rise in xenophobic attacks in the UK, following the Brexit referendum, indicate that the experience has – perhaps temporarily – marked a breakdown of civility, in the sense that the attackers have not felt obliged to suppress their dislike of the ‘other’. It is interesting that this has been theorised as being enabled by the signals given by the politicians (ie state actors) campaigning for the UK to leave Europe.  These recent events, like Singapore’s housing quotas and public education campaigns, would suggest that the state does have an important role to play in allowing different types of people to live together peacefully. Trite though that conclusion might sound, and however we may want to problematise the ‘peace’ which results, or the motivations behind its enforcement or facilitation, I can’t see that there’s much wrong in reminding ourselves of it.


9 July 2016, Singapore



Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13): 2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2): 30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Wong, M. (2013). Estimating Ethnic Preferences Using Ethnic Housing Quotas in Singapore. The Review of Economic Studies, 80(3): 1178–1214.

Ye, J. (2016). Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规矩) in Singapore. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(1): 91–103.

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Walking round the Ducal Palace in Urbino today, I was trying to think about how grandiose buildings more generally make me feel.

This one was built in the fifteenth century. From the outside: massive, silent walls. On the inside: high ceilings; great hall after great hall; floral embellishments; grand decorated fireplaces; latticed windows; unexplained symbols and coats of arms; sweeping staircases; geometric elegance.

The public face of the Duke's Palace

The public face of the Duke’s Palace

Sometimes, the architecture of power positions you as impotent; sometimes, as vulgar. This building does both. And yet, in being positioned in relation to the building, you are co-opted into its power structure. However aware you may be of the misery and bloodshed on which it was built, you can’t help feeling a grudging respect for its magnificence. It becomes hard to imagine that the building merely legitimates power. Surely, you think, it has a certain beauty, a certain significance, in excess of all that. But does it?

There seems to be little in the external public face of Urbino as a whole that hasn’t been determined from on high. The urban fabric is only coherent and normalising. I have had a marvellous four days here in any case, attending the RC-21 conference The Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality. I took part in a panel about public space – you can read about that, and download my paper, here. And, if you’re interested, I can report that, in terms of my paper, Urbino seems to display an exclusively ‘civic’ modality of publicness.

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica, Urbino

29 August 2015, Urbino

Biennale Spazzio Pubblico 2015 Carta dello Spazio Pubblico

A colleague from Italy recently sent me a ‘Charter of Public Space’.1 This has been prepared as a contribution to the third Conference of the United Nations on Human Settlements, which will be held in 2016.  Relatedly, I noticed that in 2011 UN-Habitat adopted a resolution on ‘sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces’.  I can’t help but like these aspirations. The idea of having a commonly, globally agreed set of principles to guide policies and practices around public space, along with official acknowledgement of its importance, is very attractive. At the same time, however, I’m not sure that its conceptual foundation is a solid one.

The case for identifying public space as a collective good to which urban citizens have something approaching a human right seems clear enough at first glance.  Its justification typically relies on the contention that our previously ‘public’ spaces are being increasingly ‘privatised’. This, in turn, is understood as being detrimental to various things that it is difficult to dislike: social equity, social cohesion, quality of life, the quality of the democratic process, and so on.  The privatisation of the city is, in short, seemingly at odds with the so-called ‘right to the city’.

But things are not so simple.  What precisely is this ‘publicness’ which is being undermined?  The ‘public’ is a slippery pit of a concept, filled with wriggling, overlapping tendencies; its contents and shape change depending on the perspective from which it is viewed.  In the absence of a firm definition, the central claim, that the ‘public’ is being usurped by the ‘private’ – begins to look rather tautological; each term has no meaning beyond that of its opposition to the other.  If, alternatively, our use of the adjective ‘public’ relies on a particular criterion – for example, that of legal ownership – then it becomes unclear why we need to use the word ‘public’ at all.2

One of the reasons for the confusion is that the term is archaeologically layered. Its current everyday uses retain vestiges of its various meanings since antiquity (Habermas, 1989); they hang around in language as fossilised referents to social structures quite unlike those of today. In its newer theorisations, it reflects at least a postmodern sensibility, and possibly even the actual slow dissolution of liberal statehood: we now talk about multiple, fragmented publics, pragmatic emergent publics, and ‘assemblages’ of publicness where the boundaries between the human and the non-human are blurred.

Alongside its temporal variety, though, I also want to know more about how well the word ‘public’ travels across space.  How do its various meanings map onto cognate words in non-European languages? Which of its conceptualisations remain analytically or normatively useful in societies far removed from the heartlands of liberal democracy? These questions have obvious significance for an attempt to introduce a global charter of public space.  It would seem problematic if, as Hogan et al. (2012) suggest, talk of the privatisation of urban space sometimes presumes a publicness which didn’t previously exist.

Next month, anyway, I’ll be in Korea – and this is one of things I’ll be thinking about while I’m there. If any Korean speakers are reading this, I would value any thoughts you have.

22 May 2014, London


1 Thank you to Vittorio Pagliaro, of the Second University of Naples, for sending me the Charter of Public Space.  I imagine this is available from the website of the Biennale di Spazio Publico (, but this was undergoing maintenance at the time of writing.  If anybody wants a pdf in English, just let me know.

2 Indicatively of the lack of agreement over the concept, it has been argued that ownership is at best a peripheral dimension of publicness (Parkinson, 2012).


Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hogan, T., Bunnell, T., Pow, C.-P., Permanasari, E. & Morshidi, S. (2012). Asian urbanisms and the privatization of cities. Cities, 29:59–63.

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UN-Habitat (2011). Draft resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces. HSP/GC/23/CRP.4/Rev.1. Available from: (accessed 21 May 2015)

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