Life on the edges: How ‘threshold spaces’ keep us connected despite COVID-19
Social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic have seen not-quite private spaces such as balconies and driveways take on a more prominent role in daily life. Rachel Iamposki explores how these ‘threshold spaces’ are helping our cities get their rhythm back.
Balconies, fences, windows, terraces, driveways, verandas and vestibules are a unique part of street life. They allow you to connect to the street from a ‘threshold’ space, where you are seemingly neither in the public nor private spheres.
Social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic have seen these spaces take on a more prominent role in our cities. From singing and clapping in solidarity on balconies, to chalk art on fences and driveways, the mobilisation of these urban forms by citizens has helped people connect during social isolation.
So, what can this tell us about how we value, design, and manage these threshold spaces?
The growth of privately owned, or pseudo-public spaces in our cities, as well as the creeping commercialisation of public space, have blurred the already fuzzy boundaries between our public and private spheres. The COVID-19 shut-down has further altered our relationship with public space. Citizens have been forced to live more locally, taking to the footpath for their exercise and recreation like never before — and much of our neighbourhood streets have struggled to cope with the demand.
The change that social distancing restrictions have brought to our relationship with public space is particularly apparent in the increasingly social function of ‘threshold spaces’. Threshold spaces are spaces that, despite often being private spaces, exist between what we perceive as public and private spheres.
The liminality of these forms, their existence on both sides of the threshold between public and private, gives them a unique spatial and social quality. They exist both inside and outside of the street and with that comes an added layer of security not otherwise available in entirely public space — being backed by your personal, private sphere provides an element of perceived protection. The blurring of these boundaries alters our spatial behaviour within these sites, making for an important contribution to vibrant street life.
Take, for example, ‘stoop sitting’ in New York and other American cities — the urbanised culture of spending time sitting, gathering, loitering or socialising on a building’s front steps. Not only is stoop sitting, which is only enabled by the liminal nature of the stoop as a built form, an important part of New York’s identity, it has also played an important role in the history of the city in relation to the democratisation of space. An adaptation of the tradition of ‘porch sitting’, stoop sitting became an important space in poorer, black neighbourhoods, where cramped living conditions meant it was not possible to socially gather inside, while segregation and discrimination meant many black residents where not welcome in much of the city’s public space. Instead, they mobilised the stoop as somewhere to gather with community.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs suggests a good “street neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around”, citing balconies as the prime example of this balance. This is true year-round, however during a pandemic lockdown, we are seeing demand for “differing degrees of contact” at an all-time high. We want to feel connected, but from a distance that feels safe within the context of the pandemic.
We connect via threshold spaces in a way that is slightly passive and removed. We do not have to be as present or exposed in threshold spaces as in public spaces, and therefore the social connection they foster is more indirect. From their stage, threshold spaces allow us to offer a gesture to the public. In times of COVID-19, these gestures have often been quite literal, such as displaying a sign, or leaving out books and preserves in street libraries. Other gestures have been less direct, like simply spending time on your balcony and making an element of your private life, public. This blurring of boundaries is a subtle but significant part of engaging with the ‘rhythm’ of a neighbourhood.
Urban planner Matt Novacevski suggests that “Australian cities, particularly after World War Two, have not promoted or used liminal spaces well. This is a real shame, because you only need to look to what’s happening now in inner-Melbourne suburbs like Carlton, where there is a lot of interaction between people on porches and the street front, to see how these spaces can enrich daily life.”
Inevitably, this blurring of boundaries can also pose challenges. Designing and managing threshold spaces is complicated, particularly if a large part of their significance lies in how citizens organically adapt them.
While stoop sitting, people sometimes use additional furniture such as chairs and trestle tables to extend the space. As Novacevski points out, in Australian cities, the fronts of traditional terrace houses are often littered with ‘indoor’ style furniture, such as couches and dining tables, so people are able to lounge and socialise towards the street. The pastime occasionally spills onto the median strip, where picnics and even parties are organised.
During lock-down we have seen threshold spaces adapted for concerts, exercise classes and for staging applause for front line workers. As restrictions ease, our awareness of threshold spaces might also dim, but the pandemic should prompt us to consider how to better incorporate them into the design and management of our neighbourhoods.
As Novacevski puts it, “If we are serious about addressing social isolation and loneliness in our cities, a worthy step would be to use planning policy to encourage porches, verandahs and balconies in new housing design.”
The zoning of the Dutch Living Streets, or ‘Woonerf’, sees the road shared equally by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, forcing cars to slow down dramatically. As a result, residents who live on Woonerfs often bring chairs, tables and planter boxes onto the street, sometimes leaving their front doors open so neighbours can come in — essentially extending their living rooms. Initiatives such as the ‘Social Balconies’ design concept, a modular balcony system, proposes to connect a series of shared balconies and outdoor spaces in apartment blocks.
There is a democratising quality to threshold spaces, in that people are able to ‘leave their mark’ on the street in a way not possible in public space — for better or worse. Perhaps there is value in legislating or conceptualising them as public space, and managing them accordingly? Perhaps we should think of threshold spaces, and their contribution to neighbourhood identity and street life, within an urban commons framework? While the COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully pass, threshold spaces will remain an important means of improving liveability and a sense of connection in our seemingly ever-denser suburbs and cities.
Rachel Iampolski is the founder and director of Public Street, a cross-disciplinary, collaborative platform that engages with, and aims to subvert how we conceptualise public space. She is a current PhD candidate at RMIT in the Centre for Urban Research.