Putting the PUBLIC back into PUBLIC space

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PIAZZER allows individuals to find and attend open meetings, to meet other participants and to share acquaintance and conversation.

The point of PIAZZER is to bring back people meeting people to real places in the physical world. Its slogan, The Meeting is the Message. But the thinking is in the name. If Tinder allows individuals to select and make contact with other users, potentially for a first date and ensuing relationship in the physical world, then PIAZZER allows individuals to find and attend open events in public spaces, to make contact with other participants and to share their knowledge and opinions. And telephone numbers. Wikipedia defines the Town Square or Piazza as “an open public space commonly found in the heart of a traditional town used for community gatherings”. It does not however define “community gathering”, and these days the events that take place in most public spaces are neither community nor gatherings. Public spaces may be owned and managed by public bodies, but that doesn’t mean that the public can easily use them for meetings. The bureaucracy makes it difficult to organise events, and local politics (and politicians) can modify just how obstructive that bureaucracy can be. In fact, when we think of public meetings we picture rallies and demonstrations, rather than meetings of the minds or community gatherings. The Romans considered public meeting as a question of physical infrastructure and, to quote Wikipedia, a forum was a gathering place of great social significance, and often the scene of diverse activities, including political discussions and debates, rendezvous, meetings, et cetera. In other words, PIAZZER. 

PIAZZERs are small areas of clearly identified, highly visible, easily accessible, centrally located public spaces. What makes them special is that the authorities have granted a blanket permit for a wide range of “community gatherings”. Whoever wants to attend or organise a meeting has to do little more than turn up and/or spread the word. The permit holder receives proposals for new meetings, checks whether they abide by stated criteria and (if they fit the bill) puts them in an online calendar. The criteria should only relate to technical matters, e.g. amplification, use of copyrighted material, time of day, number of participants, admission fee, & etc. The nature of the contents of an event or its organiser should not be taken into consideration, beyond that required by the law or the terms of the permit. So the fundamental role of the permit holder is to ensure that the permit does not limit free speech and public participation.

1 March 2020 – Great location, pity about the timing

On its launch day, in Grosseto, Italy, on Sunday 1st March 2020 it rained heavily and a week later the Italian government banned public meetings. So PIAZZER has had to wait. Its mission is to encourage and facilitate close encounters of the human-kind, in a moment when face-to-face contact is still being kept to a minimum. Typical meetings will be small and local, so they will always be a healthy alternative to full-on sports and entertainment events.

Richard Harris
+39 320 9616302


Putting the theory into practice

Three recent books all say something similar about the importance of meeting places as social infrastructure. But the two complexity thinkers (West and Beinhocker) overlook the reality that operators of meeting places must look after their own interests (financial, political, moral, reputational, whatever), and that being truly open and inclusive is likely to be counterproductive (i.e. causes negative feedback) for them. Noreen Hertz understands this, but says that governments ought to fix it. She may well be right, but what government will grasp the chance to facilitate and stimulate genuine social “promiscuity”? Is there a quicker fix?

The Origin of Wealth, Erik Beinhocker
A critical attribute of networks with social capital is that the people in them have repeated personal interactions – creating social capital is a contact sport. Typical examples of networks with social capital include neighborhood associations, charities, religious organizations, sports teams, social clubs, civic groups, hobbyist organizations, and, of course, bowling leagues. Companies and other places of work are also significant sources of social capital, as many people spend the majority of their working hours at work and build significant personal networks with their colleagues”.

Scale, Geoffrey West
The job of the city is to facilitate and enhance this process [interaction between people] by providing the appropriate infrastructure such as parks, restaurants, cafés, sports stadiums, cinemas, theaters, public squares, plazas, office buildings and meeting halls to encourage and increase social connectivity.

The Lonely Century, Noreena Hertz
For people to feel united there need to be well-funded and cherished public spaces where relationships can develop, evolve, cement, including with people different to us; spaces where we all interact, regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic background. We can’t join together if we don’t interact with each other. We can’t find common ground if there is no ground for us to share. More fundamentally, governments need to commit to restoring the shared physical spaces in our neighbourhoods that have been steadily ravaged over recent years. A functioning infrastructure of community which everyone has access to regardless of income, ethnicity, age, gender or creed is essential if we are to have the best possible chance of both reversing the loneliness crisis and reconnecting with each other. However, given the homogeneity of many neighbourhoods, even in such spaces, interactions often end up taking place with people who are pretty similar to us.

All meeting places (or the groups that form within them) have some form of governance and their own (sometimes hidden) agendas. And, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, they will be seeking to achieve their own objectives: sell more coffee, encourage praying, pay musicians, share more books, promote peace, …. And at the same time, they will set (and be set) various limits: not losing money, not too noisy or rowdy, not “political”, not too many participants who aren’t fit for purpose (e.g. they don’t drink coffee) or don’t share certain common values (don’t believe, believe in something else, or don’t like bowling).

Cross-cultural (or cross-anything) meetings may not be easy to bring about if they go against the grain, but often the hardest part is to find the “common ground” that Noreena Hertz talks about, i.e. the physical meeting space. All this leads to the conclusion that those who own and manage public space (beginning with local authorities) can be a part of the solution, even if experience teaches that public space is rarely so. To organise a meeting in a public space means having to identify, understand, navigate/circumvent and overcome the bureaucracy. And for most it’s not worth the hassle, so meetings end up in spaces governed by others, with strings attached, barriers to entry or forms of censorship.

Which leads to PIAZZER, a proposal for local authorities and other “placeholders” to make available safe, accessible and visible spaces (PIAZZERs) for public gatherings, with a minimum of formality. Any rules (noise, numbers, nuisance, etc) must be clear and the logic is that all meetings and all formats are permitted unless they are likely to breach those rules. Better still, if use of such spaces is free of charge (and even accessorised with seating and PA), but it’s up to the operator to establish the ground rules for meetings and participation.

Overall, the gist is that when you put control of “local” infrastructure into the hands of operators (local, global or otherwise), there will be legitimate concerns about whose interests are going to take precedence. On the grand scale, this applies, for instance, to Huawei (and Cisco) in networks, Facebook in networking, Virgin in railway networks, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in terrestrial transport networks, and Tesla in extraterrestrial transport networks. But it also applies at an apparently more humble level, in that our physical social networking infrastructure (i.e. public meeting spaces) is almost entirely outsourced to operators whose aim is to do something quite different, that is, to sell something, promote an idea, curry favour with specific constituencies or control access. A prime example is the shopping mall, a place of public gathering but not of unfettered lawful assembly. But private management of public space is absolutely fine, it just shouldn’t have an absolute monopoly.