Public materials + social contracts / cultural context

As life on the world’s sidewalks evolves in the face of ongoing global “unlocking”, I wanted to take a look at a few sidewalks (both above and below ground) and how the objects installed in them are treated across different contexts. 

What does the choice of materials for a given piece of sidewalk-based infrastructure say about the level of trust that a municipality places in its citizens, and, by extension, the strength of the social contract not to deface or abuse it? 

In a Tokyo subway station, based upon the wear in the metal on the adjacent table and the back of the seat, this bench has had no shortage of use. Glass bricks are not the first material that comes to mind when one is designing for durability in a high-traffic environment, making its apparently flawless state all the more remarkable. 

When the social contract is broken, and a piece of public-facing infrastructure has been damaged, how is that message that the damage has been recognized and is being “dealt with” communicated?

In Austin, Texas a collection of damaged sidewalk art has been cordoned off by the authority of Austin’s “Art in Public Places” program, who’ve decided to use a message that both implies that the damage has been recognized while also subtly socially sanctioning (by attempting to instill guilt/pity in) those who perpetrated it.

My memory of this “injured” sidewalk art was jogged while reading a passage in “The Geography of Thought”, and how the treatment of objects as if they had feelings points translates into these two contexts’ treatments of public space:

An emphasis on relationships encourages a concern with the feelings of others. When American mothers play with their toddlers, they tend to ask questions about objects and supply information about them. But when Japanese mothers play with their toddlers, their questions are more likely to concern feelings. Japanese mothers are particularly likely to use feeling-related words when their children misbehave: “The farmer feels bad if you did not eat everything your mom cooked for you.” “The toy is crying because you threw it.” “The wall says ‘ouch’.” Concentrating attention on objects, as American parents tend to do, helps to prepare children for a world in which they are expected to act independently. Focusing on feelings and social relations, as Asian parents tend to do, helps children to anticipate the reactions of other people with whom they will have to coordinate their behavior.”

Nesbitt, Richard E., “Geography of Thought”, Simon & Schuster, 2004

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