by Matthew Merrill
in 1784, Giambattista Nolli created a revolutionary map of Rome based off of a simple proposition. Utilizing a figure-ground representation, he depicted the entire city, with one major exception: the interiors of all of the churches - the centers of public life at the time - were represented as the ground. With this simple change, the map was no longer just a catalog of buildings, but began to depict the urban experience within.
Since that time, public life in cities has significantly changed, but our understanding of public space has remained severely outdated. Public space is commonly understood as government-owned space made accessible by law or decree - such as with parks or libraries. But the contemporary experience of public space is much different; some of the most publicly accessed places - such as shopping malls and parking lots - are privately owned, while some of the most publicly inaccessible spaces - such as airports - are publicly owned. Though ownership typically establishes “publicness”, the disconnect between the two requires a new understanding of public space, and new ways of mapping it.
In the Accessible City, this new understanding of public space looks at accessibility, and not ownership, as the determining factor. Any space that can be publicly accessed is now, to a varying degree, considered public space. And those spaces which remain inaccessible are considered private.
To test this new definition, I chose to focus on a particular site - Downtown Crossing - and did an intensive analysis within. I went into every storefront and saw how far I could get, opening doors, walking to restricted rooms, and exploring hidden places. I mapped the plans of these places that I accessed, and recorded the qualities of each.
I then used this information to create a contemporary Nolli map. All the inaccessible spaces were represented as dark figures, and all of the accessed spaces are represented as the ground. However, unlike Nolli’s map, it does not simply show a binary relationship; rather, the ground is represented as a gradient of color, showing the degree of accessibility of spaces. Thus, the urban experience is not just switching back and forth between the public and private spheres, but rather continuously occupying space which usually has, to varying degrees, characteristics of both.
As such this maps brings a new light to the urban experience. It shows a gradient of public experience, as determined by the accessibility of space. And it transcends the scale of architecture, showing a level of detail smaller than the individual building, but aggregated to depict an urban experience. Thus is both more descriptive, and more expansive, than a single building.
For the analysis, the selection of the site was of utmost importance. The site needed to have a diversity of typologically distinct spaces, in order to demonstrate differences in how public spaces function. Equally as important was to include a traditionally-conceived public spaces, to see to what extent they do or do not conform to their expectations.
Downtown Crossing was ideally-suited to meet these criteria. The diversity of uses within a continuous, large city block meant that the character and relationship of the spaces could be elucidated by juxtaposing them against the geometry of the highly regularized rectangular city block in which they are contained. The typologically-distinct spaces included:
- various restaurant types
- subway entrances/exits
- various store types
- food courts
- department stores
- parking lots
- indoor malls
- government buildings
What constitutes a space?
Since the project is concerned comparatively analyzing spaces, delineating the boundaries of this space is of primary importance. Thus the project became just as concerned with the barriers qualitatively influencing the type of space as much as the spaces themselves. But what constitutes a barrier?
This question ended up being one of the most difficult to answer. People’s movement through space is highly conditioned by their individual response to it. A near infinite number of stimuli in one’s milieu do not directly affect one’s behavior, but rather are mediated by internal cognition mechanisms. Thus, the determination of what constitutes a barrier, and thus what constitutes a space, is highly subjective. Any criteria applied to quantitatively analyze the space had to acknowledge the fact that this project is more a diagram of an individual’s response to their surroundings rather than an aggregate of society’s views.
This was initially deemed limiting, as the information did not seem universally applicable to a larger audience; as opposed to other mapping projects that utilized data aggregated from sites like Twitter or Foursquare, this did not reveal social patterns or tendencies. However, what it lacked in universal relevance, it gained in personal significance; the depiction was highly revelatory of how one moved through a space, showing how far they were willing to penetrate into the building. And though it was a depiction of an individual’s movement, by utilizing the Google maps platform, the project leaves open the ability to aggregate additional user’s information.
But simply cataloging the series of transgressions was not sufficient to determine how public each space was. As such, a series of eight criteria were applied to each space to determine this. These included:
1 - Physical obstruction - are there physical barriers - such as a doors, counters, or other obstructions - limiting one’s access?
2 - Legal consequence - does one have the legal right to enter the space? Are there legal repercussions if one does?
3 - Required membership - does one have to be a member (ie. employee or gym patron) in order to access the space?
4 - Signage - are there signs instruction one not to enter the space?
5 - Pay-to-play - does one need to be a paying customer to access the space?
6 - Potential customer - does one’s actions need to posit the intention of purchasing in order to access
7 - Temporality - what proportion of the day can this space be accessed?
8 - Surveillance - was the space noticeably monitored by video or live personnel?
Some of these questions had binary solutions, while some of them - such as temporality - could be more accurately measured across a sliding scale, allowing for a more precise measurement of quality. Utilizing transparencies, these spaces are then layered to show, in aggregate, the degree to which the user deemed the space public or private. With the online interface, any one of these criteria can be isolated to understand the comparative qualities of the spaces for each category.
Utilizing similar representation conventions as Nolli, this project nonetheless offers a much greater level of information and complexity. Rather than simply representing spaces in the binary poche/non-poche fashion, this map represents a gradient of poche, showing how penetrable spaces are, based not on typology, but on actual experience. Thus the map is more relevant, and descriptive, of urban realities.
Though a static depiction of space would have been revelatory, the project had greater ambitions. By utilizing a customized Google map as a base for which the analysis is uploaded and displayed, the project makes the information universally accessible. Anyone with a browser can go to www.theaccessiblecity.org to view the map, and can easily manipulate scale and view using standard Google Maps tools.
But this was also done to make the project scalable, by serving as a base for which additional analyses and data can be added. By utilizing this universal platform, it allows for the expansion of the project to potentially envelop user-submitted data. In doing so, it could allow the project to show not just an individual’s movement through space, but also, potentially, aggregated societal views and interactions within space.
PARANOIA AND PUBLIC SPACE
Field research for a project like this - involving accessing spaces one does not have the legal right to enter, opening unmarked doors, and photographing restricted spaces - logically raised suspicion and concern. In a post-9/11 era, users were much more suspicious of my activity, particularly in government buildings. Operating under a mindset in which the government is deemed a perpetual target of terrorism, government and civic buildings - which traditionally were deemed the most public - are now some of the most restrictive. The Massachusetts State house, for instance, employed a massive security apparatus - including security guards, metal detectors, and video surveillance - that served as a significant barrier to access.
However, these public buildings are burdened with the competing goals of trying to maximize state security while also allowing access and transparency characteristic of a participatory, democratic system. And while one could cynically state that, in contemporary experience, the latter goal is entirely symbolic, that did not bear out in experience. Though there were a significant number of barriers when initially entering the Massachusetts State House, once the user was inside they had relatively free roam of the building; I was able to access mechanical rooms, private rooms, and other vulnerable spaces in the building with ease.
But over the course of the project, paranoia surrounding public spaces, and the security infrastructure put in place to control it, significantly changed. Midway through the project, just a mile away from the Downtown Crossing site, a number of bombs were detonated at the Boston Marathon finish line. 12 years after 9/11, terrorism paranoia regained legitimacy, particularly in a local context.
And as a corollary to the project - which expanded the pedagogical understanding of public space to those spaces traditionally deemed private - the bombings expanded the realm in which terrorism was deemed an imminent threat. It was no longer just civic buildings, but rather all publicly-accessed space that was threatened by terrorism and subject to public paranoia. Researching the final project, I could not sketch a floor plan or take pictures of a space for more than a minute or two without being asked by a passer-by what I was doing, and a number of times I was asked by police officers to explain, in detail, my intentions.
And it is in this new security context that the project gains new relevancy. In depicting spaces in terms of accessibility, it reveals those spaces most at risk of terrorism. And this proves to be both a benefit and a liability. On one hand, it serves an educational purpose, showing officials (and the public) a more relevant map of where these acts of terrorism could potentially take place. On the other hand, it gives those inclined to commit such acts better knowledge of the area and potential sites.
Albeit controversial, this project posits the view that the expansion of public knowledge is a moral obligation. Just as with any technology that aims to expand public knowledge, this depiction of the accessible parts of a city has the potential to be used for both benevolent and more nefarious purposes. How this knowledge is used remains to be seen.