The line between public and private space isn’t necessarily clear — especially when it comes to indoor spaces. Is a library public space? What about the fountain at a shopping mall? There are several ways to analyze this question. Ownership is one; access is another. Sometimes these lenses give different answers. Both a library and a police station are publicly-owned, but only a library really feels like public space. A shopping mall is privately-owned, but it is very much accessible to the public. These are important questions to ask oneself when thinking about public space — but we should also ask about public participation. We at FfIPS believe that ordinary people should have a say in how indoor public spaces are used and we propose the following question as a tool for thinking about the extent to which a space is open to public participation:
If a stranger were to walk into a space with a fantastic, but slightly outside-the-box, idea, how difficult would it be for them to make it a reality?
The more detailed the imagined scenarios are, and the more accurate the imagined institutional responses, the more useful the question becomes. Obviously, the answer will vary depending on the activity being proposed. One might be able to hold a meeting for a new non-profit in a coffee shop quite easily, but you might have trouble hosting salsa lessons. There are good reasons for these variations, as sharing space is always a balancing act. However, the more scenarios there are that result in a ‘go ahead’, the more open a space is to public participation. It is of course still important to consider other aspects of public-ness — the FfIPS Rule of Thumb simply provides an additional angle of attack. According to this standard, it may well turn out that certain independently-owned, open-minded coffee shops are more public than a library or a museum. We feel that this question will also help people to understand the FfIPS project and why we are interested in so many different types of spaces. We want to encourage any and all spaces to think about how they can say ‘yes’ to more fantastic ideas. Shopping malls should consider the costs and benefits of opening their concourses to dancers and roller-skaters after hours. Even an office building might consider offering inexpensive access to some of its facilities after regular business hours.
If you are the owner or a manager of a space, you might prefer phrasing it like this:
If a stranger were to walk into your space with a valuable, but outside-the-box, idea, how would they go about making it a reality?
It may also be worth considering these sub-questions:
Who would they talk to first?
Who would need to approve the idea?
What red-tape would they have to confront?
Are there any fees?
Would different people get different answers? Why?
Are there people in the community who might not even know that your space exists?
How could you make your space more welcoming to new ideas?