To quote from a new book about Banksy, that provocative son of Bristol in the UK, we're looking for "an acceptable level of threat." What this means, for us, is finding ways to experience the street so that our perspective is changed and we notice things we missed before, or we see familiar things differently. That "acceptable level" takes us out of our comfort zone, but not so far out that we are paralysed with fear or confusion.
A week ago we did a little experiment where a group of us split up and individually watched other people on the street. No photos, no recording - just quietly observing. But this wasn't so much about the people we were watching, as about ourselves. Yes, it was interesting to see how differently people used the street: some walking purposefully, others ambling along as they looked for a coffee shop, and others just hanging out for no obvious reason. The real lesson, though, was how it felt to be observers.
Many people say they enjoy "people watching", but usually we do this as a side activity, when we are doing something else, like having lunch at a streetside cafe. By having a reason to be there, we have a "cover", a justification that makes us comfortable. When observing street life is the main activity, it feels different. More like theatre, but with the discomfort of being a voyeur, an unobserved observer. It raises moral questions. Is it really ok to watch people so purposefully But then we watch people all the time, and even classify and judge them as we navigate public space and assess potential threats. Is it any worse to watch without judging, with the sole aim to increase awareness of how we and others use streets?
Asking questions and raising awareness of how we respond to other people and the places we inhabit is part of the Open Streets mission. It's a way to be more conscious of how the design and management of public space can create great streets and a better city.
This Friday, 20 September, we'll be participating in International PARK(ing) Day, by occupying some on-street parking bays on Long Street with chairs and other furniture. It will be another opportunity to see how drivers, pedestrians and others respond to an unusual but non-threatening activity that reinterprets how the street can be used. We welcome others to join us and see how street life responds.
We will be 'parking' in front of Lola's on 228 Long Street (near the top of Long street, at the intersection with Buiten Street). See you there!
16 September 2013