In true Audrey-fashion, I had a duplicitous reaction after reading this essay about Chance Encounter on the Tiber—an investigation into spontaneous non-design activations of public urban spaces. This project used the banks of Rome’s Tiber River, its walkways “essentially unused by Romans and visitors alike,” as the location for an experimental attempt to activate a public space. By placing one hundred movable red chairs on the riverside walkway, the project aimed to see how—and if—people would use the space. To take it a step further, a somewhat impromptu musical performance was added; Lisa Bielawa’s musical composition, Chance Encounter, was written “expressly for performance in transient public spaces.”
Conceptually, I love this idea. While this experiment may not have drawn the crowds hoped for, the thought that simple actions have the potential to alter a public urban space by shaping the way people will use it, is beautiful and fascinating. It speaks to the idea that sometimes we have a tendency to over-think and over-design, whereas often solutions can be simple, yet still effective.
My opposing reaction comes from my personal experience with the Tiber’s riverbank walkways. I had the fortune to be a temporary resident of Rome a few years ago, and I have a special connection to these walkways. To understand what I’m about to say, one needs to have experienced an extreme urban environment—or at least be able to conjure it up in one’s mind. Rome’s urban core is heavily populated, heavily used, heavily occupied—by residents and tourists. Rome is chock-full of public squares, and they are only devoid of masses of people in the wee hours of the night. This is a city that is not lacking in public places to congregate. Additionally, Rome is loud, and its pace is hectic. It is, by all accounts, a bustling urban city.
I used to go jogging in Rome—something that quickly identified me as not a Roman—through the historic center, toward the river, often descending the stairs to the aforementioned riverbank walkways. What I loved most about my experiences on these walkways was the key thing Chance Encounter was trying to change: the scarcity of people. I found something magical in this desolate place lying directly within and surrounded by an urban hub teeming with people. There was also something fascinating about the idea of descending to this place; conceptually it was underground. It allowed one to be anonymous, and essentially, alone—something that is never possible at the top of the stairs. It was different from going to a park or a trail or some otherwise quiet place of respite within the city. It offered a more unique experience: to be directly within the city, still able to hear the noise and see the traffic zooming by, above the river, yet be somewhat removed from it all.
To be within and surrounded by something great, yet be somehow uninvolved is an opportunity we don’t often get in an urban environment.
As I filed through the photographs of this project, I found myself smirking at the photos of the stairs being scrubbed and sprayed down—because I know why. It’s a simple fact of urban life that desolate places such as this will attract what some may term “undesirables.” The Tiber River walkways and stairs are no exception. Some locations on the riverbanks housed the homeless, and often the stairs and walkways would be littered with drug paraphernalia. Most notably, the stairs embodied pungent overtones of urine. I’ll not go so far as to say these qualities are “attractive” or “enjoyable.” But I will say that in my mind, they are part of the allure of an urban environment with any sort of grit. Perfection, cleanliness, sterility—those are better left to the suburbs.
Essentially I’d like to question the assumed definition of a successful public space being one that is used by many—particularly a place like the Tiber riverbank, which was not designed as a gathering place, but rather as a way to protect the city from flooding.
Does every public space need to be teeming with people to be considered used and useful? Or is it acceptable, and maybe even preferable, to have public spaces within an urban context that are just the opposite?