Spaces of Interaction
Quality, not Quantity: The Case of Bogota, Colombia
Camila Gutierrez Plata (MAUD ’18)
An excerpt from Gutierrez Plata's thesis, "Spaces of Interaction: Quality, not Quantity - The Case of Bogota, Colombia" completed at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2018
The public realm is the space where citizens meet with strangers. It is theoretically, the space where anyone can express their opinion, a space where everyone is free. While this may have been the case several decades ago, as Robert Putnam expressed, contemporary society with its technology, privatization of public space, and various other factors, are decreasing the amount of social capital in its communities.  One of the reasons why networks are not formed between citizens, is because they do not meet outside the private sphere, limiting both the amount and also the type of people one interacts with. Public space’s role in societies has diminished, but is recently starting to come back as an essential component of cities. As Marmorstein, Neilsen and Juul point out: “When the inhabitants entrench themselves – as an upshot of the common space being driven away by private interests and self-serving considerations – the society’s cohesive force vanishes and concomitantly its potential to evolve”.  Since interactions that used to happen in the public realm now tend to happen in the private sphere, citizens have less and less contact with strangers and Richard Sennett’s ideal city, which should do its best to heal society’s divisions of race, class and ethnicity, just doesn’t exist. 
Several designers and mayors, with knowledge from sociologists and anthropologists who have studied the urban and people’s relations in the public realm, have begun to focus their efforts into the production of public space, knowing its important effect on society. Although this refocus is in the right direction, due to the way public spaces are analyzed and designed, their efforts end up creating spaces that do not necessarily improve conditions of the public sphere. As any other subject that has to do with cities and societies, the situation in each is different and therefore so are the approaches to improving urban conditions. In the case of Bogotá, and of most Latin American cities, the general approach has been to increase the amount of public space. Although this is a well-intentioned endeavor (for many lack such space due to a high degree of informal urbanization), it completely ignores the social aspects of how public spaces work. By understanding that public spaces are really ‘Spaces of Interaction’, as a researcher, as a designer, as a planner, or as a city mayor, one will give as much importance to the amount of space as to the quality of the spaces created, a quality measured by how much its physical elements and its context influence and encourage more meaningful interactions between citizens.
David Seamon’s concept of place-ballet, which happens only in supportive physical environments, depicts many time-space routines (a set of habitual bodily behaviors which extends through a considerable portion of time) and body-ballets (“a set of integrated behaviors which sustain a particular task or aim) fuse together in place, resulting in an environmental vitality that “generates a strong sense of place because of its continual and regular human activity”.  The notion of place-ballet is particularly interesting because it is a way of understanding space and time, with the integration of people. Maslow and Steele both acknowledge that sense of belonging and shared symbolic identification are human needs. Shared symbolism can only be achieved if people are in the same space and perceive it not in a similar way, but as a space with symbolic meaning. Public spaces should be these spaces where place-ballet not only happens by chance but is actually fostered, due to the fact that there is a higher chance that there will be more diversity participating in it. By understanding public spaces as spaces for interaction, one can produce that supportive physical environment which Seamon believes is essential for place-ballet to take place.
There are several conditions in the context, both physical and social, that define a space’s potential to generate interactions. These conditions range also in scale (for the location of a space within a city and district is crucial), to the design of the space and the elements within it, as well as with the perception of individuals in the space. In order to create spaces of interaction in the city, it is essential that all scales are taken into account, for no public space will be active if the conditions of its context or its design are not focused on this goal. Bogotá is aware of how important public space is, but what it seems to overlook is that its importance comes from the social dynamics of the space much more than just its existence as a public open area. Changing the frame through which public space is looked at to that of spaces of interaction, Bogotá may manage to continue increasing the amount of public space in a way that has a more positive impact on its society. One way to begin to do so is by changing the way in which spaces are analyzed and the considerations taken to design or redesign public spaces.
To read this whole thesis further, visit: https://issuu.com/camilagutierrezplata/docs/spaces_of_interacion_low
- Putnam, Robert D. 1995. «Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.» Journal of Democracy 65-78.
- Marmorstein, D A, T F Nielsen, y F A Juul. 2011. Public Space: The familiar into the strange. Copenhagen.
- Sennett, Richard. 2006. «The Open City.» Urban Age. Berlin: London School of Economics. 1-5.
- Seamon, David. 1980. «Body-Subjet, Time-Space Routines, and Place- Ballets.» In The Human Experience of Space and Place, edited by Anne Buttimer y David Seamon, 148-165. London: Croom Helm London.
- Maslow, Abraham H. 1954. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Row.
- Steele, Fred. 1973. Physical Settings and Organizational Development. Reading: Addison-Wesley.