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Social Networking in the Square March 24, 2010

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I recently attended a NLSA lecture at UCLan by Nick Corbett, Director of Urban Design & Enterprise at Urban Living.  He was, of course, publicising his book – The Revival of The Square.    www.urbanliving.org.uk 

His talk was interesting.  Some fabulous examples of how design led regeneration can really work in reviving the economic and social machinations of the city, not only the aesthetic and environmental elements.

However, his analysis of the square is rooted in his experience in the 1990s, when the social environment was still determined by physical presence.  Is the 21st century social environment the same?  Well, yes to a degree, but for many our social environment is dominated by a presence in the virtual square – on facebook, tweeting and of course, blogging.  In fact, the phrase ‘social networking’ now implies a virtual world of tweets and news feeds – not a world of hand shakes and business cards.  How has this impacted the role of the physical square? 

Perhaps the advent of virtual social networking has damaged the city square as urban dwellers become atomised at their workstations, seeking interaction through their computer monitor.  The square becomes a place for the underclass, the have-nots who are socially excluded from the virtual world by their lack of internet access. 

Or perhaps there is a new revival in the physical and traditional urban meeting place.  Our urban environment is perceived to be a violent and threatening place by many.  However, the benefit of the virtual world means that users can ‘test out’ and affirm their new contacts virtually before meeting them in person.  By networking in the virtual world, we make the initial contact that we would have felt inhibited to do in the dangerous, physical world.  More virtual contacts lead to an increased likelihood that we will transfer these interactions to the physical world, reviving the square as a place for physical manifestations of the online community.

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Enter to select field. Hit space. September 9, 2009

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Hurrah!  A new semester. 

I’m back from my staycation in Pembrokeshire where the boys and I had a glorious week digging in the sand and stroking ‘giddy pigs’ as Seth calls them.  We camped on a basic but adequate camp site and it didn’t rain all the time.

The camp site consisted of two enormous fields, divided by the main access road.  The two fields forged their own distinct communities – them on the hill who didn’t have dogs and them in the boggy bit who did.  By an accident of pre-tent-erection blondeness we selected the boggy one.  We don’t have a dog.

But where to put the tent?  Environmental psychology would determine that campers would pitch around the edges of the field before opting for a less sheltered and ambush prone site in the middle.  However, balancing microclimate against the absence of marauding Celts or bears, we selected a central site as all the available ‘edge’ pitches would be in the shade come tea time.

This meant that we were more than a nod and yell’s distance from the other campers, hence reducing opportunities for sociable Black Sheep quaffing or indeed another little ankle biter to play ‘scoring a goal’ with Seth when our lack of stamina or desire for a brew got the better of us.

Camping is, of course, about getting back to nature and getting to go on holiday for only a few quid.  So why oh why oh why do camp sites not seem to reflect this?  If it’s about getting back to nature, why are the fields mown within an inch of their lives so that any flora or fauna are intimidated away?  If they didn’t mow the sites or at least adopted a selective mowing regime, then it would be a damn site/sight cheaper and create a more pleasant environment for the middle class hippy types who want to go there.  By allowing trees, shrubs and meadow grasses to define the spaces, it would create a more defensible and sociable sub-area to promote said Black Sheep quaffing.

We could even go further and dare I say it…….design the camp site.  I would be interested to know if anyone knows of a simple, low-tech, yet spatially creative camp site.  This has been done with other land uses which seek to create natural space which also enables the apparently conflicting requirements of sociability and privacy.  We’ve done it to sculpture parks (Kroller Muller); allotment gardens (Sorensen’s hedged ellipses in Denmark): we even take care to define and create functional and pleasurable spaces in car parks.

The staycation is here to stay.  There are thousands of camp sites that make their mark on the landscape in the UK and not all are owned by struggling farmers.  Better design could simply be achieved by reducing maintenance and great places could be designed with a little thought sprinkled with some commercial acumen.