Many protest that public space is becoming privatised and, as put by Anne-Marie on her blog, some argue “big city public spaces turn out to be extended private spheres”. I would like to think it could actually be the other way around: our private space could be an extension of our public life.
Our individual behaviour in so-called private spaces has a direct impact on the earth as a whole, where public and private merge into one because physical boundaries do not make a difference to globally felt issues. So what if our sense of personal responsibility to that place we all inhabit were the guiding principle of our daily lives?
I can think of two people who exhibit this when it comes to recycling. They remind me how important it is we take our “private” behaviour seriously if we really care for our communities.
My colleague Yumna has been developing a recycling system for the 20-something small offices that make up our “shared space”. She started by placing signs on bins explaining which type of material can be recycled and which type should be placed in the “other waste” container. She has gone from handwritten notes to charmingly designed signs that seem to follow us everywhere we go in the building. It has taken her some time to explain how it all works and, more importantly, to convince us how crucial it is we help the system to work. Any lack of compliance has been met with different approaches: from polite reminders to stern notes in our kitchens. Slowly but surely, Yumna is succeeding in planting a seed.
The other bright star in this constellation of human beings is my friend Zoe who recently set up a neighbourhood-wide compost heap by opening up her garden (literally) so that her garden-less neighbours could dispose of all their organic waste. In a few weeks, she has gained several compost contributors and her garden is showing some lush results. The success might outgrow her space, but hopefully by then others will be ready to follow suit.
In both cases, I am reminded of the importance of acting with a public conscience in our private spheres. In a way it shows the blurred lines between those two realms that are ultimately not so different. For legal, philosophical and economic reasons, they are and must be kept separate and distinct, but in practical terms they should reflect our human values irrespective of spatial boundaries. This is particularly important in cities of the Global South where government simply can’t provide all the answers. Not to let local authorities off the hook, but it seems that there is an opportunity for individuals to help reimagine our cities by bringing a public consciousness into our homes and places of work.
In acknowledging the importance of privacy and individuality, there is also something to be said for the need of consistency in our behaviour. If it is indeed true that public space belongs to all, it then follows that we all have responsibilities in looking after it. In the example of recycling, change at the level our environment requires can only happen if everyone contributes in their own “private” spaces.
Of course more is needed for macro-level change to take effect and significant facilities, policies and systems that make recycling easy, efficient and cheap are required. But I would like to think that individual initiatives can help us get there sooner. A bit of peer pressure can go a long way … and perhaps (when we are in our private space) we should dance as if nobody is watching but recycle as if Yumna’s and Zoe’s eyes are on us!