By Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly editorial January 2020
In a rural setting, public spaces lie between households. These are spaces shared with neighbours. And as you walk out of the village centre, either up the hill, into the fields or down to the riverbank or the coast, Nature’s presence begins to dominate and you are then but a guest in a wider world as yet little touched by persistent human interference.
Where tar roads connect village to village to town to city allowing for hasty vehicles to zoom along at breakneck speeds, distance both appears and disappears at the same time. It disappears because you can now travel quickly to places that were once far away. Space shrinks. But in shrinking, it also appears in our consciousness as something to be traversed, something that is merely in the way, as it were, of your wish to get from A to B. Space becomes a bother.
Urbanity changes our relationship to space and loosens our link to Nature. As societies grow in size, they acquire space that then needs to be planned, managed and endlessly maintained.
The transition from having a rural sense of natural space to acquiring an urban sense of shared social space is not an easy one. It does not happen naturally, and time, training and coercion are required for an emergent urban population to behave in ways that maximises the functional value of shared space, and that minimises disagreements over patterns of behaviour in that essentially contested space.
The urbanisation of life in many developing countries is a recent process, and the speed at which it has been, and is, taking place explains the chaotic – and generally opportunistic – nature of public behaviour in public spaces in such countries.
The Recent Urbanisation of Human Life
Public space in countries such as Malaysia is therefore often understood in a rather non-urban sense in that the public does not feel itself to be responsible for it or for what happens in it. That is the job of the authorities. The sense of joint ownership over it is weak, and therefore the use of it is tentative, opportunistic and predatory. It is neutral ground where a hit-and-run attitude prevails.
Where state authorities are absent or uncaring, public space becomes a “no man’s land”.
One could in fact say that there has to be a public before there is proper public space. In cities, you need citizens for public space to be effectively public space. You need people who feel a sense of community and ownership over the geographical are that they necessarily share. To reach that point, regulations that are rational and fair, and that are enforced reliably are needed. The public services therefore have a key role to play, and should bear much of the blame when public spaces stay uncivil and chaotic.
If the authorities are blind to unfair or opportunistic practices on the part of individuals in the use of public space, then one cannot expect a sense of shared responsibility to emerge among what is then essentially a hotchpotch of individuals trying to get the most out of ungoverned public spaces.
Coming to a common understanding of how public space is to be used requires both a top-down system of control, as well as a citizen-to-citizen development of best practices. If the former stimulates the latter, then all the better, but that can only happen if official regulations are reliably enforced, and not excessively coercive. If citizens feel unengaged in the development of urban social mores, and think that they are instead endlessly monitored, a sense of timid obedience is what they develop, and not a sense of mutual responsibility.
Constructing shared space in such a way that individuals increasingly sense the need for mutual understanding in its use according to rational rules that are deemed fair and rational is therefore a major undertaking for town planners and local authorities.
Urban liveability, it seems to me, boils down to the sustaining of healthy interactions between local authorities and town planners on the one hand, and the man, woman and child on the street on the other.