Territory: spaces of identification; public space?

[David Closes, 8th October 2005 _ Published in the book  ‘Art, Experiencies and Territories in Process’. Idensitat / ActarD, 2007]

As part of the Idensitat 05 event, I have been asked to reflect on the issue of urban expansion and public space. First of all, it is necessary to clarify exactly what scale of urban expansion we are talking about. Urban phenomena in Western countries have reached a territorial scope.

As a result, if urban phenomena take place on a territory scale, it is therefore necessary to ascertain which elements enable us to identify or understand large cities on this new scale. We then have to ask if this new urban scale has or could have the scope for its own public space.

My aim in this essay is to address these two questions.

The scale and nature of urban phenomena

In Western countries, the concepts of city and territory have become confused. The Western city has become an amorphous sprawl, in a constant state of mutation and growth, which spreads out until it covers the entire territory.

As mentioned above, the concepts of city and territory begin to blur. Despite some people still searching for an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the city, the definition of urban space, in contrast to non-urban space, has become outdated. For some time now, we have not been able to discuss city and territory as two separate entities. We now have to refer to the ‘territory-city’ (to paraphrase the idea of the ‘Catalonia-city’ of the Catalan intellectuals of the early twentieth Century).

The dizzying rate of transformation of the territory has led to the emergence of urban agglomerations that, in some cases, reach a continental scale: from Boston to Washington on the Eastern coast of the United States or from Rotterdam to Zurich in Central Europe.

The rural/urban dichotomy or the clear definition of an inside and outside of the city, in the traditional conceptualization, played a key role in the structures by which we interpreted the space. Nowadays, in contrast, with the new scale of urban phenomena, what are the new features that make this concept of territory-city a recognizable entity?

Within this city that covers the entire territory, not only have city and countryside merged into an indistinguishable whole, but also what once faded into the background now often becomes an island. Whereas agricultural and forest spaces used to provide a constant background against which cities developed as well defined entities, in the new reality, they have become isolated figures surrounded by a continuous urban background.

This fact has consequences, not only in terms of the development and feasibility of natural systems, but also it has a significant effect on the capacity of citizens to conceptualize the phenomenon or to form a mental map of the new metropolis.

Urban spaces of identification in the traditional city

In the traditional concept of city, by which we mean the concept developed from the emergence of the grid systems of the 19th Century onwards, the key elements that enabled the identification of the city, its shape and boundaries were:

  1. Avenues.
  2. A network of parks.
  3. The regular geometry of street grid systems.

These elements of identification simultaneously held two characteristics:

  1. They formed a formal structure by which the city and its boundaries could be recognized. This formal structure enabled the citizens to form a mental map of the city with which to order and locate the various smaller urban elements.
  2. They formed a public space, in other words, a communal place of social interaction within the group of individuals within the city.

Spaces of identification in the territory-city

So, what are the spaces or elements by which we can recognize or identify the territory-city in the new urban reality? Are these public spaces?

Above all, it is important to bear in mind that our new urban realities, in a continual state of expansion, are only navigable by motorized means, be they public transport or private vehicles. The whole of the territory-city is therefore fundamentally interpreted in terms of travelling by vehicle: from a perspective on wheels.

In the final part of this essay, I aim to outline which elements of identification may be considered appropriate for this new urban reality. Firstly, though, I will list some of the more common elements that enable a certain level of identification of these urban sprawls. Which elements, in the basic, everyday reality, can we identify in these agglomerations that are formed of a muddle of contradictory logic? These elements of identification can be summarized as follows:

  1. Signs. The points of reference are reduced to a diverse and changing collection of commercial icons and symbols.
  2. Trails. The layout of transport infrastructures (road and rail networks) are among the few identifiable elements at the scale of the urban sprawl. Even so, however, due to the relentless growth in mobility and the efforts to provide for this growth by improving the capacity of the networks, road infrastructures are becoming increasingly complex and elaborate, and as a result, more incomprehensible. This often results in the gradual loss of their capacity to impose order and to enable clear identification of the territory.
  3. Nodes. Within the framework of the territory-city, meeting points are banal, homogeneous and monotonous places that correspond to a logic that is completely alien to its environment (except to the road infrastructure that feed it): shopping centres, leisure complexes, transport stations, etc.
  4. Road signalling. When the urban chaos is absolute, we are left with no element of identification other than road signs, like Hansel and Gretel trying to find their way home, following a set of clues (crumbs, stones, etc) that have been left along the way.

This set of elements – with the exception of the transport infrastructures – are weak, with little capacity for defining a recognizable structure of the new city. At the same time, with respect to being public space or not, it is worth highlighting that, except those that by their very nature cannot be considered a space (such as prosaic commercial icons), the rest of these elements are characterized by being spaces of segregation rather than open interaction between citizens. In some cases, this is because the (false) interaction takes place with each citizen enclosed inside their own vehicle and, in the cases in which a (private, not public) space for interaction emerges, it involves commercial or leisure complexes that tend to attract only certain social groups.

As a result, these set of elements of identification seems to fall very short of having the necessary features to become a system of territorial public spaces.

Strategies for a territorial public space

The elements of identification of a territory-city, in order to qualify them as a system of public spaces, would need to have both of the following features:

  1. Elements that enabled a conceptual appropriation of the territory. In other words, they would need to be elements that made it possible to conceptualize the formal structure of the territory: elements that allowed citizens to form a mental map of the city on its new territorial scale.
  2. Elements that enabled a real appropriation of the territory. In other words, these elements would have to be spaces that could be ‘lived’ in, that have a shared value and meaning for all citizens. The concept of ‘lived-in spaces’ could refer to elements such as the road infrastructure network or the agricultural and forest spaces that become large-scale leisure spaces for citizens.

So, which elements would facilitate this conceptual appropriation that we mentioned? To answer this question, it is important to bear in mind that the transport infrastructures are the only mechanism, from the perspective of everyday activity, which seems capable of giving us a complete overview of the extensive area of the territory-city.

In a traditional territorial structure, the course of the roads runs through rolling agricultural and forest countryside, linking urban nuclei with clear, identifiable boundaries. In contrast, in a urban and territorial situation in which the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ have become completely obsolete and where the rate of travel has grown dramatically, the perception of the territory is reduced to just its most defined landmarks. When we drive around the road network in our vehicles, the way in which we perceive the territory comes down to its most essential features: filled spaces, empty spaces, interruptions and breaks. The landscape is reduced to built-up areas (filled spaces), forest and agricultural land (empty spaces), bundles of infrastructures or river courses (interruptions) and major natural geographical features (breaks).

Building or reinforcing a structure and a clear sequence of these elements (filled, empty, interrupted, etc), and with the road network itself enabling us to create the mental map of the territory, it has been possible to rethink and project the new scale of the urban reality.

At the same time, however, if we want these elements to form a system of territorial public spaces, it will be necessary for them to hold meaning, relevance and value for all citizens. The spaces would either need to be experienced directly (such as agricultural or forest spaces that have become large-scale leisure areas, or the road networks on which we travel daily or, of course, the built-up areas) or to have a specific value that is recognized and identified (river courses, particular agricultural areas that provide products that are valued by the citizens, etc.).

So, to finish off, is it really possible to develop and implement strategies of this kind? I would say that, at the moment, the prevailing logic of urban expansion and transformation seems to be developing in such a way that the formal structure of the territory, as a cultural value, holds very little weight.