Sociability: Public Spaces as an Antidote to Isolation

Katherine Peinhardt
Aug 10, 2023
May 1, 2024

Editor's Note: This article is the second in a four-part series that explores the four segments of the Place Diagram, which answers the question, “What Makes a Great Place?” Read the first article on Uses & Activities here. To learn how to implement and manage a placemaking project, register by August 31 for our online training "Placemaking: Making it Happen" taking place September 5-21, 2023. 

Though it is the least tangible of the qualities that make a great public space, sociability is probably the easiest to feel. It is the sense of excitement one feels when entering a space filled with other people, the friendliness and vitality of a beloved park, or the neighborly spirit of a familiar street. But even more than that, sociability is the proof that all the elements of a place are working well together: that people feel included, represented, and welcomed in the full expression of themselves. 

The ability of our public spaces to remain deeply social and engaging has perhaps never been more important: The Surgeon General’s warning about a “loneliness epidemic” speaks volumes about the lack of connection many people feel in their everyday lives. Though there are many societal changes contributing to this worrying trend, creating public spaces that are social and inclusive can certainly be a part of the solution. In other words, building a public realm that combats isolation is a public health issue worthy of attention.

Sociability is one of the four main tenets of a great public space

Sociability is one of the four segments that define the Place Diagram, a visual representation of what makes a great public space. This article explores what a sociable public space does for us, how it can be created, and how inclusion and representation factor into getting it right.

What Is Sociability?

We are social beings at our core, and public spaces are often the best platforms we have to connect with one another. Just ask Setha Low, a distinguished professor of environmental psychology, anthropology, and geography, as well as director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York. In her latest book, Why Public Space Matters, she writes, “Sociability is the result of contact and social interaction, the most basic ingredients required to create a public space for individual and group flourishing.” Low observes that sociability strengthens connections between members of a community, fulfills our psychological need for interaction, and has very concrete impacts on our collective ability to organize and collaborate—especially in times of trouble.

Kids and caretakers in costumes celebrating at the 2022 Hootenanny Fall Fiesta hosted at Hawthorne Community Center's outdoor space, which was recently transformed by Project for Public Spaces. Credit: Jim Walker, Big Car Collaborative

Our ability to access these benefits of sociability depends heavily on our shared spaces. In her book, Low notes, “Public spaces enable people to encounter those they would not normally come across and transform ‘others’ into individuals who are recognized and engaged” (p. 5). This transformation from the “other” is the first step in a meaningful social connection, referred to by Low as a healing force within our communities. Having places that make it more likely for us to encounter others sets us up for improved social cohesion, enhanced well-being, and a sense of place.

Read on for four approaches to supporting sociability in public spaces.

1. Think About Representation to Create “Connections Across Difference.”

One of the unique roles of a great public space is that it invites and encourages interactions between people with different lived experiences and identities. This is an especially crucial role because these places are some of the few where this type of interaction happens. So for genuine sociability to take root, a public space must be welcoming to many different communities and demographic groups and give them the chance to engage with one another.

Aaron Greiner, Executive Director of Culture House sees this role as a central pillar of sociability. “There are very few places that can create connections across difference, especially when it comes to wealth, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and public space often acts as that place.” But even where space does exist, sociability between different groups of people is not a guarantee.

Kids enjoying the new playground in Win’s courtyard, which underwent a placemaking transformation by Project for Public Spaces. Credit: Win

Greiner emphasizes the need for spaces to feel specifically welcoming to marginalized people and identities. Making places “for all” isn’t enough. To bring wider representation to the placemaking process, it's critical to involve people in the process who may not have been invited in the past. This means not only asking people what makes them feel most at ease when they come into a space, but also having spaces that are specifically designed by and for systematically marginalized identities, which may not cater to a general public.

An arts-based pop-up in Salem, Massachusetts, demonstrates how spaces can better connect people. Credit: Culture House

To Greiner, this connects directly with representation. Involving stakeholders in creating a space makes it more likely that programming will reflect members of the community: “When people don’t see activities or people that look like them, it feels less welcoming. That means that when looking at events, we ask, ‘Are those events by and for a community that has not felt welcome in that space before?’” Asking these important questions when designing, managing, or programming a space can ensure that it becomes inviting to people who might otherwise be uncomfortable there.

In the historic Old Town Hall in Salem, Massachusetts, an arts pop-up by Culture House demonstrated the effects of representation and inclusion. Credit: Culture House

In Salem, Massachusetts, Culture House staff saw this effect first-hand while organizing a pop-up community space focused on art. In 2022, Culture House aimed to re-activate the historic Old Town Hall and saw an opportunity to make the building and surrounding area feel more inclusive. To do so, team members reached out to BIPOC artists in the area, many of whom had not felt welcome in the area before, to hear about their past experiences in Downtown Salem. The resulting programming centered the work of these creatives, including a featured installation on Black history alongside an exhibit and reception led by a local BIPOC arts and culture organization. 

Over the course of the three-month pop-up, more than 10,000 visitors came to the space, with BIPOC-led exhibitions and events reliably drawing in the most BIPOC visitors. Greiner recalls that this attention to representation strengthened locals’ sense of connection—people felt more comfort in claiming a space once seen as unwelcoming, and more able to access the benefits of sociability.

While representation is incredibly effective in building trust in a place, it also takes time. People often need to build up a sense of familiarity with a place before they can feel fully at ease there. Greiner notes that even for a pop-up like the one in Salem, it can take many people two or even three encounters before they decide to engage with the space. But in the end, opportunities to connect and feel represented can make a public space come alive for everyone. As Greiner puts it, “Making that the core of the development of public spaces is what will lead you downstream to a space that actually feels connected and equitable.” 

2. Look Through the Lens of Queer Urbanism.

More inclusive social activity in a public space can also be supported by applying a concept called Queer Urbanism, which Greiner defines as coming at the idea of urbanism from a queer identity and perspective. To Greiner, this means designing spaces that go beyond the identities for which public spaces usually make room, removing assumptions around race, wealth, family structure, gender expression, and more to give people a sense of comfort in expressing themselves. This self-expression is made possible by a healthy combination of safety, representation, and a space that is itself already outside of the ordinary.

Queer Urbanism is alive along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Credit: Aaron Greiner

In action, places like Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, fit the bill for Queer Urbanism, as evidenced by “public displays of queerness” that indicate a healthy level of comfort and belonging. The city gives visitors a feeling of not conforming to the standards of another town and, in so doing, encourages authenticity and openness between people. It has defined itself through its architecture and through the way people move along Commercial Street and through the city. By shedding a sense of heteronormativity that often pervades the public realm, Provincetown encourages self-expression while establishing itself as a place in which queerness is welcome. 

“It doesn't assume wealth, traditional family structure, and identity. Rather, Queer Urbanism welcomes and celebrates the identities of those who have not had a world made for them.”—Aaron Greiner

Part of the beauty of queering public spaces is that the benefits are not restricted to people who specifically identify as queer; rather, it makes our shared spaces feel more expansive for everyone in terms of what is possible there. In an example of the “curb cut effect,” spaces that  encourage more open and genuine interactions for marginalized identities are simply better and more appealing spaces for anyone who visits.   

3. Give Everyone a Reason to Stay.

Part of feeling comfortable socializing in a place is having a reason to be there. Unfortunately, many people are made to feel as if they do not belong in public spaces based on factors like housing status or mental health. In order to build any kind of meaningful social cohesion, it is critical to foster a social environment that includes and supports these vulnerable groups. Providing something for everyone to do in a space ensures that it can be open and welcoming to all and reduces the likelihood that marginalized groups will be made to leave.

According to Project for Public Spaces’ Director of Projects Elena Madison, this means starting with an alibi. “For vulnerable populations and for people who have had bad experiences with institutional partners or figures of authority,” says Madison, “It’s very important for that social environment to be non-stigmatizing and to offer what we’ve been calling ‘an alibi,’ which is an activity that feels normal and appropriate for everybody in a public space. It’s a way of normalizing the experience.” Giving people reasons to linger means that they are less likely to be harassed or stigmatized, meaning that they have more valuable time to connect with others and establish a sense of normalcy.

Designed by Project for Public Spaces, the Recharge Station in Times Square, New York City gives anyone a reason to stop by, from coffee to connections to social services. Credit: Ruvi Perumal.

In Times Square, a kiosk called the Recharge Station provides the alibi of charging one's phone or grabbing a cup of coffee, encouraging interactions between New Yorkers, regardless of housing status or mental health needs, while also connecting them with social services. With the aim of building up trust among vulnerable individuals, the Recharge Station kiosk is staffed by members of Fountain House, a nonprofit focused on supporting people impacted by mental illness, as well as a social worker. Visitors can be put in touch with housing and mental health resources, or simply stop by for a refreshment or to use a charger. This sense of choice reduces stigma, and invites people from all walks of life into the same space. 

Giving everybody an excuse to be in public space can lend a sense of ease to someone who might once have felt out of place there. By creating a wide array of uses and activities in a place, especially a mix of passive and active programming, people are more likely to linger, bump into other visitors, and take part in the kind of repeated interactions that add up to community.

4. Create a Positive Affective Atmosphere.

When it comes to the ingredients for highly social places, Setha Low notes that something called a “positive affective atmosphere” is necessary, alongside a strong sense of inclusion and opportunities to establish contact with others. This positive affective atmosphere can take many different forms, but an “affect” generally refers to one’s mood or emotional state—meaning that creating a space that feels comfortable and welcoming to a wide range of people is the first element in encouraging their interaction. 

In Why Public Space Matters, Low defines this atmosphere as an attribute of a place that encourages openness and engagement between people. This can take shape as part of the design of a space, the natural environment, or something happening there, like events or performances. In theory, anything that contributes to people engaging with one another can be a part of the atmosphere, from music to food to seating. Here, activating and managing a public space in ways that make it feel attractive, safe, and lively are key.

Community Dinner and Night Garden in Northgate Park, Camden, New Jersey. Credit: Cooper’s Ferry Partnership

Precisely because a positive affective atmosphere invites people to connect with one another, it requires inclusion to be meaningful: “A positive affective atmosphere contributes to conviviality and social interaction, but without a supportive and egalitarian public culture, it is not likely to create a socially just public space” (Low, 2023, p. 7). If a place feels socially active but only invites certain people in, its positive atmosphere is incomplete, and so too is its sociability. 

Sustaining Sociability

Maintaining sociability in public spaces is about sustained awareness. “Sociability is actually one of the elements of great places that really requires special ongoing care and attention to succeed” says Madison. “Some things can be built into the physical environment and always be there, but the social element and environment needs to be recreated every time, because it’s all about people.”

Project for Public Spaces was thrilled to bring placemaking to the Fulton County Library System. During the opening launch of the All Access Library, kids gathered to enjoy a live magic show centered around the joy of reading. Credit: Fulton County Library System

Sociability is an ever-changing thing, reflecting the ability of a place to make us feel comfortable, welcome, and at the end of the day, linked to other members of our community.

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