I wrote an essay, a short time into undergrad (although it ended up playing a role in both my bachelor’s and master’s theses) on the effect that the shape and structure of public spaces have on their use. In less convoluted words: how does the atmosphere of a communal space affect how we feel in it?
One of the first parts of the essay included a definition of ‘public space’- for this purpose, I narrowed it down to a communal area, funded or owned by the ‘public’ (via government), designed by the public (again via government/local authority) and which encouraged the interaction of relative strangers. And this was all fascinating to me- here’s a space, to which we feel entitled, although we likely have had very little or no personal input, and it has the power to affect the way we interact with others. It’s still kind of incredible.
And I’m thinking about it tonight, because I just got off work at my local, privately owned small business non-corporate coffee shop. A shop designed and dreamt entirely by the owner, to which nobody is entitled, and which does not necessarily encourage the interaction of strangers (beyond simple transactions). It, too, is a sort of public space. It is a space which anyone can enter during business hours (excepting that they have previously been banned), but which comes with none of the privileges of being public property. It is not a library, or a market, or a park. It is not even a church or temple, which, albeit not truly ‘public’ spaces, often aspire to the same ideas of public ownership and investment.
It’s a business. And a coffee shop, like all restaurants, like all stores, has a unique position in public space. The store is designed to lure and keep the customer, who feels entitled to enter- but not obligated to buy. All of us have gone into a clothing store, told the clerk “Just browsing, thanks”, and left without purchasing anything. Many of us have gone to a restaurant, read the menu, and left without purchasing. Fair enough. But the reason those displays are designed so enticingly? It’s to encourage you to buy. At the end of the meal, restaurants ask if you want dessert- to encourage you to spend more money. Coffee shops provide free wifi- because if you hang out, you might get another drink, or a snack. Like all public spaces, businesses design themselves to affect the way that you act- the choices that you make. And I’m fully on board with this. A church designs their public space to draw your mind to worship; a business draws your mind spend money.
The issue I have, that sprung up tonight and so many other nights, is that this fine line- of ‘public’, of entitlement, of designed interactions, is so often lost. Tonight, like many other nights, somebody came into the shop, took a seat, started working on their laptop, and didn’t order a drink. Or food. Or anything. Now, I have a standard response to this- it happens that often- after a reasonable time (say, they wanted to get settled before ordering), I go ask them what they’re waiting on, and apologise that it’s taking so long. At that point they usually get up and buy a drink. Tonight, though, I got an unusual response. The student in question (and I’m not blaming millennials here, pensioners do it too), responded: “Oh, I haven’t gotten anything, I’m just here to study.”
I understand that we’ve got a great studying atmosphere. That is, to an extent, the idea- study, get comfy, buy more coffee. Bring your friends. Stay all night. But, I have never seen anybody walk into a restaurant, sit down, and conduct a business lunch- without buying any food. You’d be laughed out of the store. And then probably banned.Yet, it’s routinely done (or at least attempted) at coffee shops. I’ve seen it happen at Starbucks, I’ve seen it at other local joints. And it’s a concept of public space I’m still working around- precisely because it happens nowhere else. Did early modern tea shops have similar issues- men coming in, reading the paper, not buying anything? Bookstores spring to mind- come in , browse a book, leave without buying. However, if you liked the book- you usually buy it. Nobody enters a coffee shop, tests the wifi, and then asks to purchase so many bytes of browsing speed. They are not testing the product, they are utilising the space- this space, which on the surface is so similar to a public space, but is very much not.
There are no government funds for local coffee shops. There are no tax contributions to create a studying atmosphere. A small business depends on moving product. And, no, one person (who always buys a drink) and fails to once, isn’t going to sink a store. Still, people understand how to interact in a public space based in part on those around them. A store full of people on the internet with no drink, and the impression is given that this is a free space, entitled for the use of the public. Which it isn’t, and which it doesn’t want to be. That place you’re thinking of, designed for study and quiet meetings with friends, and getting work done in a thoughtfully-created and decorated space, is a library. Or a park.
I ended that conversation by explaining, briefly, that the shop is the owner’s livelihood, and that overhead costs (such as wifi) are paid for by people buying drinks. And that conversation worked for that student. How many times, though, does that conversation need to be had?
I was a local bookstore the other day, and observed that they had removed all of their large comfy armchairs.A clear change in the design- a clear desire to influence behaviour. Coffee shops are still at the point where wifi is more profitable than not- but will this change? Will the culture change first? Is there a way to encourage a purchase first, or to discourage unpaid loitering? Or, and I can feel myself turning into a politician-ranting-on-millennials, is this a symptom of a larger culture of privilege and entitlement? Do we feel, largely, as though we have the right to inhabit spaces to which we have no ownership? If so, how do we stop this behaviour- in ourselves, and later in others?
I don’t know, yet, but when I figure it out, I’ll probably get a job designing public spaces.