Proximity

4 image streetscape WilliamsburghNorth 5th street, Williamsburg, New York

While sitting on the train that takes me to my office, I can not help but notice how difficult it has become to share space: if we could only have our own couch in the wagon, not having to touch others people’s bodies, not having to look into each other’s eyes or listen to some of their conversations. In very few cases, mostly when we chose the people we sit with, the encounter is of a more positive and a less defensive nature, enjoying an occasional conversation. My daily observation routine illustrates perfectly the contemporary model of proximity: social distance, aimed at separating, more than integrating or making overlap, has become a main issue of how to make or use space. The value of a property is very often measured by the distance from the neighbor, as the price of an apartment increases when there are windows with large views, unframing any neighbor’s existence. In an similar way, urban plans increasingly seek to separate and isolate (even if this is sold as a safety measure) at a bigger scale. In a similar way, urban design projects treat public space as if it is a space to be explicitly divided and its uses (or uses) separated. A long time ago we heard that “proxemics” would take over (Hall, 1966), that “systems of relative distances” would determine space production (De Solà-Morales, 1997). Indeed, this became true. In “Territory without a model” Manuel de Solà-Morales described a different meaning of places, unlike the traditional “genius loci” concept: “the expected sensation of voids and the indifference of its constructions” (1). He referred to the rising importance of periphery that is no more based on tactics of repetition and differences but on a system of relative distances. As the dialogue between the building and the urban surrounding system became an individual one, distances lost their absolute value: they seem to belong to a more complex urban matrix. The author argued that the distance between areas or autonomous packages defines the very law that constructs peripheries: the notion of distance now obtained a rather abstract dimension. However, the importance of this concept gets even more obvious by looking at it at the scale of the urban project, not necessarily in a context of periphery: our daily experiences are increasingly defined by sets of minimal or maximum distances, in a physical or symbolic way. The distance between properties, between properties and natural resources, between properties and infrastructures, between properties and high employment areas became quintessential to sell a property or to develop a project. Instead of defining density, we ended up defining sets of rules of relative distances, often executed by zoning laws and urbanistic technicalities. In a way, we define and measure time and distance, comparing systematically with other depth configurations, that is the specific relationship between public and private spaces in an urban sequence.

Bernardo Secchi sees a similar change in the nature of the built environment: continuity, together with centrality or urban equilibrium, are obtained by recognising urban fragments and spaces-in-between. He refers to the “inverse-city”, where the traditional centre occupies periphery and vice versa, where big-scale depth sequences might be turned inside-out. “The space in between things, between objects and subjects next to one another, between my house and my neighbour’s, between their office and mine, is traversed by many strangers, and it is not a meeting place; it has become empty because it plays no recognisable role; this space is only required to be permeable, and should be traversed with a s little friction as possible”(2)
The idea of in-between-spaces as part of a set of relative distances reinforces the importance of depth and proximity, more than morphological approaches of single urban artefacts. However, the understanding of depth within a configuration is affected by the way we take into account public, private or collective space, and the reading of distances as a relative notion. Proximity that is understood as a set of universal absolute spacing mechanisms does no longer fulfil our recent social or functional needs or desires for privacy or collective life. Absolute distances have no urban meaning unless we put them in a tempo-spatial framework: a five meter distance between some single-family houses does not have the same meaning as when these would be located in different neighbourhood. Apart from that, any distance belongs to a much longer and much more complex configuration of “other distances” that according to the social or cultural profile of its users, changes drastically. It might seem that, according to those time and spatial references, five meters are not enough or too much or that those judgements change rapidly in time, as different users occupy the mentioned territorial configurations.

The main topics, however, when dealing with models of proximity, are accessibility and permeability. Because of sets of relative distances, people get better or more difficult access to properties, to natural resources, to employment or entertainment areas, to cultural hubs etc. This way, it is important to avoid any judgemental attitude: integration tactics are not always the only and right answer, sometimes spaces or activities need to be separated, buffer areas need to be planned, gaps obtain a structural value in depth sequences. Instead, we should take advantage of the discourse of proximity to rethink ALL models: the ones providing access and the ones restricting it, as this is the way reality is.

1 M. de Solà-Morales, “Territoris Sense Model” article in Papers, Regió Metropolitana de Barcelona, nº 26, Barcelona, 1997, p 21-272

2 B. Secchi, “For a Town-Planning of Open Spaces,” in Casabella 597-598, January/February 1993, p 116

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