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Porosity Architecture in Public Spaces

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3416 words Published: 30th Apr 2018

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The connection between the built and the unbuilt / between the “indoor” and the “outdoor”/ between the mass and the void is a very sensitive and debatable topic.

The experience of a space can be severely affected by the ways its edges are treated, i.e. by controlling how a person enters/exits the space. Transitional experience plays a vital role in overall feel and experience of spaces. Different types of spaces require different types of treatments on their edge conditions.

A city needs to be imagined as a space occupied by diverse sets of people with diverse needs and aspirations. The quality of a city has to be judged by what it offers to its residents – the right to live, move around and work with dignity and safety.

Porosity is one of the many guiding factors in designing a space, specially public places, which are the key strategic spaces in providing the area/city its character.

Not only does careful design of such spaces increase the aesthetic quality of the place, but also plays a major role in increasing the standards of functionality, safety, quality and many such factors under which a city can be categorised.

Porosity, is one spatial quality that can definitely benefit the public spaces, specially in places like Delhi, where the individual is getting isolated from the community in his efforts to cope up with the pace of life that the city has to offer.

Also, with the increasing gap between the two extreme income groups of the city, the spaces, which are meant to be ‘public’, cater only to a certain section of the society, neglecting those which fail to fulfil the ‘entrant requirements’ .

Apart from giving spaces back to all the sections of the society, increasing porosity in community spaces can also act as a measure against increasing crime rates in the city, as it opens up the space to a larger section of the society.

Topic: Porosity in public spaces

Research Question: How can porosity in public spaces be increased to enhance their utility for the society in general ?

Public Spaces

Public spaces are an inevitable component of human settlements. Parks, plazas, roads, beaches, etc are typically considered public spaces. They are the common ground for people to interact with others, share knowledge or goods, or carry out their daily rituals, be it daily routine or occasional festivities. By definition, they are spaces that should be accessible to all the members of the society, irrespective of their economic strength.

It was stated that:

Regarding the criterion of access, public space is a place which is open to all. This means its resources, the activities that take place in it, and information about it are available to everybody. Concerning the criterion of agency, public space is a place controlled by “public actors” (i.e., agents or agencies that act on behalf of a community, city, commonwealth or state) and used by “the public” (i.e., the people in general). As for interest, public space is a place which serves the public interest (i.e., its benefits are controlled and received by all members of the society) (Akkar, Z 2005).   

Of course, these definitions refer to an ideal public space, while the urban atmosphere is not entirely composed of rigidly public and private spaces; instead, it is an amalgamation of public and private spaces with different degrees of publicness. Accepting that the relation between public and private space is a continuum, it is possible to define public spaces as having various degrees of publicness. Regarding the dimensions of access, actor and interest, the extent of publicness will depend on three categories: the degree to which the public space and its resources, as well as the activities occurring in it and information about it, are available to all; the degree to which it is managed and controlled by public actors and used by the public; and the degree to which it serves the public interest.

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Life in public spaces, not only has a function in the society as a whole, but it is also a rich source of individual amusement, pleasure and play. One criticism of the prevailing socio-functional approach towards urban public space can be that the individual’s perspective is often disregarded. To what extent do city dwellers like to meet other urbanites in public places? Hardly any planner, architect or urban administrator seems to be interested in that question. Planners and city councils are eager to speak about public spaces as meeting places. They find it an attractive idea to conceive of public spaces as a unifying element where all sectors of the urban population meet. With the help of that image they can present their cities as communities, despite all the contrasts and differences. Most social scientists dealing with urban public space also tend to regard processes that take place in the public realm as a contribution to the social organization, as a fulfilment of societal needs. This top-down-view, however, neglects the daily user’s perspective. Do city dwellers wish to get together with all their co-urbanites? Everybody who has ever been in a city knows the answer: no, certainly not with everyone. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that at least some individuals derive great pleasure from being in public.

Whether a space will function well depends on a range of aspects that include scale, use, safety and comfort, density and links. In many cases it is the individual’s experience of walking or dancing down a street, and the quality of environment, that is the most important element. Design then becomes about maximizing choice and trying to provide for different individuals’ goals.

Mitchell, D (1995) adds another dimension to public space by putting forward the point that public spaces are also, and very importantly, spaces for representation. That is, public space is a place within which a political movement can stake out the space that allows it to be seen. In public space, political organizations can represent themselves to a larger population. By claiming space in public, by creating public spaces, social groups themselves become public. Only in public spaces can the homeless, for example, represent themselves as a legitimate part of “the public”

Public sphere is best imag- ined as the suite of institutions and activities that mediate the relations between society and the state (Howell 1993).

Problems with public spaces

Despite the resurgence of interest in public spaces, urban design and planning litera- ture has frequently hinted at the diminishing “publicness” of public spaces in modern cities. Some researchers have pointed out the threat of recent privatization policies, and claimed that public spaces, traditionally open to all segments of the population, are increasingly being developed and managed by private agencies to produce profit for the private sector and serve the interests of particular sections of the population (Punter, J 1990). Others have commented on the high degree of control now maintained over access and use of public spaces through surveillance cameras and other measures intended to improve their security (Reeve, A 1996). Still others have argued that contemporary public spaces increasingly serve a “homogenous” public and promote “social filtering.”

These open-access public spaces are precious because they enable city residents to move about and engage in recreation and face-to-face communication. But, because an open-access space is one everyone can enter, public spaces are classic sites for “tragedy,” to invoke Garrett Hardin’s famous metaphor for a commons (H, Garrrett 1968, cited Ellickson, R 1996)

A space that all can enter, however, is a space that each is tempted to abuse. Societies therefore impose rules-of-the-road for public spaces. While these rules are increasingly articulated in legal codes, most begin as informal norms of public etiquette (Taylor, R 1984, cited Ellickson, R 1996). Rules of proper street behaviour are not an impediment to freedom, but a foundation of it (Ellickson, R 1996)

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Oosterman, J (1992), in his journal Play and Entertainment in Urban Public Space: The Example of the Sidewalk Café, points out that since 1989, several cities and towns in the Netherlands have invested millions of guilders in the design and redesign of plazas, streets and parks. These designs are also meant to have a social impact. Many discussion sessions are held about the nature of social life in urban public space and its function in the greater urban society. This is the case in debates among policy-makers and planners as well as among social scientists and architects. Although the concepts used in these sessions do not always deserve a prize for clarity, some characteristics appear through the haze: urban public places should be accessible, or even democratic places.

Other participants in the discussion about public space do not share this belief in the possibilities of changing urban society by changing its public spaces. Richard Sennett (1990, p.201) for example is rather pessimistic in his latest book The Conscience of the Eye. People no longer seem to be able to cope with the social and cultural differences of the modern city. They maintain their network of personal relations within physically and visibly segregated social worlds: ‘sealed communities’ as he calls them. According to Sennett, urban public spaces cannot bridge the gap between those worlds, even though they are supposed to do so.

Today one cannot open a book about public space design without coming across a picture of either the Piazza San Marco in Venice or the Campo in Siena: two beautifully designed plazas referring to the romantic ideal of free, accessible public space, where everybody meets anybody.

Comparing their idealistic model of a ‘real’ public space with the contemporary city makes authors like Habermas and Sennett rather pessimistic about contemporary urban culture. The city’s urban territory is too privatized and inaccessible. This pessimism is not surprising. Over time, the scale of society grew, the mobility of the population increased and new means of communication developed and disseminated among the population. These and other conditions led to different claims on urban public spaces


William H. Whyte argues that cities should exert no controls on “undesirables,” including beggars and aggressive eccentrics. In his words:The biggest single obstacle to the provision of better spaces is the undesirables problem. They are themselves not too much of a problem. It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem. “The people have the right freely to assemble together, to consult for the common good, to make known their opinions to their representatives and to petition for redress of grievances.”

In their study with the Jagori, Kalpana Viswanath and Surabhi Tandon Mehrotra concluded that Women’s ability and right to access and use public spaces is dependent on the kinds of boundaries imposed upon them due to nature of the space and its usage. Thus having a mixed usage of space is more conducive to free and easy access. Very strict zoning leads to separation of spaces for living, commerce and leisure. This increases the likelihood of some spaces being closed to women and other vulnerable groups such as children. For example in Delhi, we ( Viswanath, K Mehrotra,S) found that vendors selling everyday items make a space safer, whether in the subway, residential areas or bus stops. The local bread and egg seller gave a sense of comfort to women who returned home at night. Similarly vendors provided light and a crowd around bus stops which tend to become increasingly empty and dark as it gets later.

But this phenomenon of safety provided by the hawkers is not understood by all govt authorities. Anjaria, J (2006) tells the story of condition of street hawkers in Mumbai. They are frequently described by civic activists, municipal officials and journalists as a “nuisance”; and are seen to represent the chaos of the city’s streets and the cause of the city’s notorious congestion. On the other hand, to others they represent an undeserved claim of the poor on the city’s public spaces. This despite the fact that even a cursory look at the city’s streets and footpaths shows that parked, privately-owned cars are by far the city’s greatest encroachers of public space, and the greatest obstruction to the movement of pedestrians. However. to the self-proclaimed defenders of public space, the civic activists and the NGOs bent on removing hawkers from the city’s streets, these facts are irrelevant. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the city’s footpaths must be reconfigured, disorderly footpaths must be made monofunctional. The crime of the hawker is to contradict this dream. And, thus they have become a “public nuisance” because, by working on the street, they are engaged in an activity that contradicts the supposed universal ideals of the modern public space.

The question may be how do we bring the ethos of privatized space that we have become used to together with the return to more democratic values that many people aspire to for the Millennium? Kath Shonfield in her recent contribution to the Demos series on the ‘Richness of Cities’ (Shonfield, 1998) focuses on public space and what she calls the new urbanity. She promotes the ‘urban right to roam’ and suggests change to urban policy that would include urban rights to access, extending public access as a principle of new developments, and re visiting the idea of the arcade as an urban design model to be explored. (cited Jon, R 1999)

In order to shape the design, size and form of public spaces in town centres, it is necessary to understand their roles and functions. Public spaces in town centres can be classified in two broad categories: links and nodes. Links are roads, pavements or pedestrianized areas which constitute routes allowing movement between land uses and attractions. Nodes are cross roads where a number of links meet in the form of public spaces such as market squares or plazas.

There have been different models of gender conscious planning adopted by cities to respond to violence against women and women’s fear of violence. The “broken windows” approach focuses on zero-tolerance to crime, closed circuit televisions (CCTV) and an exclusionary approach to creating safer spaces [Mitchell, D 2003]. This approach criminalises certain kinds of people and behaviour such as gay men. The safer communities model on the other hand, puts forth a vision of making public spaces safer through activities, land use, social mix and involving users in designing strategies and initiatives for safer public spaces. These are seen to be more conducive to building ownership rather than the top-down approach of the “broken windows”. The safer communities initiatives emphasise “activity, land use and social mix” (Whitzman, C 2006, cited Viswanath, K and Mehrotra, S 2007)

Stavros Stavrides (2007) says:

Instead of thinking of social identities as bounded regions one can consider them as interdependent and communicating areas. In an effort to describe urban space as a process rather than a series of physical entities, we can discover practices that oppose a dominant will to fix spatial meanings and uses. These practices mould space and create new spatial articulations since they tend to produce threshold spaces, those in-between areas that relate rather than separate. Urban porosity may be the result of such practices that perforate a secluding perimeter, providing us with an alternative model to the modern city of urban enclaves. A city of thresholds could thus represent the spatiality of a public culture of mutually aware, interdependent and involved identities.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay entitled “Naples,” explored the idea of vitality and variety in the modern city. The porous rocks of Naples offered him an image for a city’s public life: “As porous as this stone is the architecture. Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades and stairways” (Benjamin,W 1985). Porosity seems to describe, in this passage, the way in which urban space is performed in the process of being appropriated (Sennett 1995). It is not that action is contained in space. Rather, a rich network of practices transforms every available space into a potential theater of expressive acts of encounter. A “passion for improvisation” as Benjamin describes this public behavior, penetrates and articulates urban space, loosening socially programmed correspondences between function and place. Porosity is thus an essential characteristic of space in Naples because life in the city is full of acts that overflow into each other. Defying any clear demarcation, spaces are separated and simultaneously connected by porous boundaries, through which everyday life takes form in mutually dependant public performances. Thus, “just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth and altar, so, only much more loudly, the street migrates into the living room” (Benjamin 1985). Porosity characterizes above all the relationship between private and public space, as well as the relationship between indoor and outdoor space. For Benjamin porosity is not limited to spatial experience. Urban life is not only located in spaces that communicate through passages (“pores”), but life is performed in a tempo that fails to completely separate acts or events. A temporal porosity is experienced while eating in the street, taking a nap in a shady corner, or drinking a quick espresso standing in a Neapolitan café. It is as if acts are both separated and connected through temporal passages that represent the precarious fleeting experience of occasion. Everyday occasions thus seem to shift and rearrange rhythms and itineraries of use (de Certeau 1984). only located in spaces that communicate through passages (“pores”), but life is performed in a tempo that fails to completely separate acts or events. A temporal porosity is experienced while eating in the street, taking a nap in a shady corner, or drinking a quick espresso. It is as if acts are both separated and connected through temporal passages that represent the precarious fleeting experience of occasion. Everyday occasions thus seem to shift and rearrange rhythms and itineraries of use (de Certeau 1984, cited Stavrides, S 2007)

According to Starvides, Porosity may therefore be considered an experience of habitation, which articulates urban life while it also loosens the borders which are erected to preserve a strict spatial and temporal social order.

Thresholds, thus play an important role in materialising the play of connection and sepration between spaces. A study of thresholds can help reveal the actual correspondence and interdependence between spatial identities.

In post-colonial Asian cities like Hong Kong similar conditions of urban porosity exist. Hong Kong’s urban environment is devoid of the cultural conditions that mark the traditional “world cities” of the West. There are no memorable public spaces, no refined residential fabric, and no exemplary monuments to religion, politics, art, knowledge or culture.

“Urban life in Hong Kong is traditionally linear in form. The roles of parks, piazzas and gardens in Hong Kong take on functions that change with the time of the day. They are by nature multipurpose spaces, festival grounds, concert sites, and improvised sports arenas. While these open spaces are fully utilized in key times, they lack any identity and are usually barren and lifeless when not in use.” (Lu, L 2005)


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