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What’s public and what’s private? Draw the line and discover delight

This is not some simple slide toward social openness or self-exposure. Messier and more contradictory than that, it’s a failure to distinguish between public and private, or even understand that such a distinction exists.

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Does it, though, exist? Does it matter? Well, yes. Consider urban theory, where public-private discussion goes way back. Back in 1972, US architect and planner Oscar Newman produced his seminal book, Defensible Space. So influential was the book that its subtitle, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, spawned a whole discipline, CPTED. But the debate also broadened, examining how clear public-private definitions enhance not only safety, but delight.

Newman’s interest was sparked by the famously crime-ridden 11-storey Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis, Missouri, where he was a professor. The estate – designed on Corbusian principles with lofty intentions of verdant community living by renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed Manhattan’s Twin Towers) – had become so dangerous that mothers had to group for safety to walk their kids to school.

Stranger still, a smaller, older building nearby with the same demographic mix was almost entirely trouble-free. Newman wondered why.

His thesis was that everyone behaves better when ownership is evident: private space should be defensible, public space should be surveilled. Definition is key. It relies on a spatial syntax of fences and hedges, markers and signs, levels, textures and colours. We read such clues so habitually it’s almost a shared language of space.

These ideas spread. The discussion broadened across cities and suburbs. When definition is vague – when it is unclear whether the resident or the council is responsible for the grass verge – no one takes responsibility. Dereliction ensues.

Now, half a century later, it’s almost as if the public realm has vanished altogether.

Traditional city buildings took pains to demark public from private space. Think of the Burns Philp building on Sydney’s Bridge Street, a personal favourite. Built in 1899-1900 from a design by A.L. and G. McCredie, it invests heavily in its civic presence, garnishing the street with a rich tapestry of carved granite and sandstone, oriel windows and gold leaf, and investing even greater grandiosity in elaborating the passage from one to the other.

The Burns Philp building in Sydney’s Bridge Street invests heavily in its civic presence.

The Burns Philp building in Sydney’s Bridge Street invests heavily in its civic presence.

Enter Modernism. When modern towers hit town in the early 60s, they strove to dissolve the street wall altogether. Seidler’s Australia Square (1964) fronts the public with nothing more solid than a glass atrium wall, and even that set back 20 metres. The street, left like that unloved grass verge to define itself, dissolves into nothingness.

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True, Australia Square’s sunken courtyard is pleasant enough, as faux-public spaces go, but it offers nothing to the street. All the focus is on thrusting floorspace into the sky for private pleasure and profit. Along with all towers like it, it is a prophetic diagram of Thatcher’s maxim, “There is no such thing as society.” In Thatcher’s world view, which has since become universal, only individuals exist.

But COVID-19 has forced us to recognise the immense value of the public realm, especially the outdoor version. That is, mainly, streets. You might think it a stretch from the humble street to bare butts on Instagram. But think about it.

Built stuff – as Pruitt Igoe showed – shapes our collective lives. It may not determine our behaviour, but it colours how we feel. In particular, it can impart pride, a sense of dignity: the public realm choreographs our lives as citizens. That’s why the Romans considered exile worse than death. It’s why military coups always instate curfew. Streets are our shared habitat. Their unalloyed publicness – the fact that, here, we wear our public, civic dress – is critical.

So, those people in the pool weren’t “nearly naked”. They may have been wearing swimmers but, wittingly in public they were, to that extent, robed.

And sure, there’s a generation of adults who’ve shared every lust and rage and wrinkly bit on social media since childhood and still see fit to take offence at even unintended slights. But that’s why a social code, defining private and public, would benefit us all. In behaviour, as in cities, definition enhances both realms. It also lets us, like Burns Philp, dramatise and delight in the passage between.

Elizabeth Farrelly is the author of Killing Sydney: The Fight for a City’s Soul.

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