Today I’d like to discuss a topic close to my heart. To be a truly quintessential ‘Maya’ topic, its gotta be cross-cultural, it’s gonna involve the US and Denmark, and its gotta have something to do with urban space. I’m currently finishing up my Bachelor’s degree in International Studies, but from the very beginning, I’ve always been fascinated by the nexus of space and society. How do people use space? What does space mean to us, culturally speaking? How can transformations and changes to urban environments do harm or good to neighborhoods and communities? Today I’d like to look at the notion of difference in public spaces across two places: Copenhagen, Denmark, and West Palm Beach, South Florida, USA.
Bonds between community members exist in Denmark, and so does trust in the welfare system being effective and productive in taking care of its citizens. If I leave my bag in a cafe, I am certain that I will find it there again. If I am walking home alone at 4am in Copenhagen, I continuously feel safe. I am alert and aware, but I am not inherently skeptical of every passer-by. In Florida on the other hand, the context it different. Trust is fewer and far between in many different aspects. This is true (in my experiences) on a meta-societal level, as well as a day-to-day level. The country is divided. This state of political turmoil is not new, but since the last election, the things we have previously been able to sit comfortably on have been brought to the surface of our discourse, and it’s been quite ugly.
People don’t trust the current administration (justifiably). People don’t trust the system in general. Why would we pay higher taxes and invest in a social system when we don’t know for certain that the government will invest that money back into the people? Trust simply isn’t there. This also goes for the way in which we use space. As mentioned earlier, consumption spaces often function as social spaces. The urban environment has been engineered in a way that revolves around a consumer-oriented society. Malls are frequent hang-out spots for people of all ages. In downtown West Palm Beach, the number one thing to do is go to the beach or head to CityPlace, which is a projection of affluent (white) liberal conceptualizations of a new urban downtown. It promotes an upscale lifestyle; it is a post-modern construction of a Southern European architectural style dawned with tanned-brick and palm-tree clad corridors aligned with boutiques and consumption spaces.
While not inherently ‘evil’, the problem with this, is that it promotes the notion that social bonding and consumption go hand in hand. It is hard to find activities to do in that part of South Florida that are truly public, social activities engineered for the people. Spaces like CityPlace are privatized. As users of space, we are also consumers. If we don’t fit into the perceived idea of who a consumer is, then we are loiterers. We are rejected from these spaces and subsequently from that micro-society. This only further divides us. In order to mend these smaller divides, and thus larger divides, we need to start with cities and spaces that are built for all peoples, and not for profit.
By Maya Schwartz