There should be a digital public bench here

Nurse on the wall of the Northern Quarter
Public wall space given over for public wall art in the Northern Quarter

I recently went on a Manchester International Festival tour with the amazing Skyliner (Hayley Flynn). One of them was centered around the history of Manchester’s Northern Quarter (meant to be the Eastside). It was a very good tour but I could tell there was much more Skyliner wanted to talk about in the short amount of time of the tour. Lucky for me, I had booked myself the week afterwards on another tour, There Was a Bench Here Once 

Join us on a search for lost public spaces: places where we could once have sat, pondered and watched the world, vanished benches and much-missed opportunities to interact with the streets around us. Visiting sites where we could once idle and dwell, we’ll talk about the importance of those spaces between places, drawing on the works of urbanists William H Whyte and Jane Jacobs to discover the importance of streetlife as we discover what and who you could once have seen and met at city-centre locations across history.

Its was great tour, where I learned about a space which is Salford’s Green Gate square (the Piccadilly Gardens of Salford). Its a really nice public space but not very inviting although everything is there including good seating, a large open space, fountains and even views of the river (although the river irwell not exactly picturesque at that point)

Greengate square fountains
Salford’s green gate square

The tour went into the Northern Quarter and Piccadilly looking at the lack of public benches and questioning why policy and politics has caused this. The  tour ended at the most advanced public bus stop in the country – Paton Street.

During the tour, I got talking with Skyliner, She asked me about what I do at the BBC on the first tour but on the second one, I could truly talk about what I do in reflection to what she does.

I do what you do but in the digital space. I am fighting for public spaces in the digital world. Fighting for the public benches, library’s and parks where you can relax without requiring payment, personal identification, etc.

We had a good but short discussion about this on the tour, I would love to have a longer conversation with Skyliner about this all. About a week later I had a very similar discussion with good friend Architect Jane, while walking around the old BBC Manchester site now called Circle Square. The Circle Square is private land, just like Skyliner mentioned when talking about Peel’s Media City UK. The impact of private and public spaces is fascinating but also on the flip side really awful if in the words of Skyliner. What you are doing can be easily lumped into the anti-social behavior box and you are moved on with little to no review. For example sleeping on a public bench would be pushed under this broad definition. Under private space all bets are completely off, as 2 black men found out while waiting for their friend in a starbucks cafe in America.

The problem with Starbucks (I mentioned to Jane, as we looked at the awful and good architecture choices in Circle Square) is its attempt to be a pseudo public space with its community noticeboard and policy of join us, kickback and enjoy time here? (I use to work at Starbucks a long time ago and we use to have a older homeless woman come into the shop about a hour before closing time, very rarely did we ever ask her to leave as the conflict of Starbucks policy was interesting)
…pseudo I believe is the perfect word here.

Not actually but having the appearance of; pretended; false or spurious; sham. almost, approaching, or trying to be.

Good use of green blending the space
Interesting use of green blending in a quiet corner of the circle square development. But is it public or private space?

You see the exact same thing happening in the digital space too. From women breast feeding there babies on facebook to twitter blocking accounts for misunderstandings (to be clear I’m not talking about Trump because what he did was stoke fires, promoted hatred is actually illegal).

This got me thinking there are clear parallels between the physical and digital worlds, especially around public spaces. I also think those parallels are really useful to explain to different people why these things are of absolute importance. (I wonder what are the dark patterns of the physical & digital world?)

I have to give credit to many including FutureEverything, Waag, Ethan Zuckerman, Eli Parser’s newpublic, DotEveryone, which does a reasonable job linking the physical and digital aspects of public life. Its all strange because I was recently pointed to this piece which is a summary of this policy paper.

Its strikes me in America, there is a lot of pressure to work along the big tech corps like Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. While in Europe there is more of an apatite to build alternatives, rather than position those public spaces them within private lands (thinking about the Starbucks example earlier).

In the ideal world, it would work but we know it doesn’t. Skyliner’s tour makes this super clear. I’m of course not disparaging the efforts to carve out digital public spaces within private digital spaces.

What is the public bench in the digital space? Does it actually exist? Can it exist and whats the norms that surround it?

 Empty Bench during Dusk

I for one believe in public spaces and will continue to create those very important public benches.

 

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.