Urban Reciprocities

Publication Date
April 3, 2021

There’s a man, a shopkeeper. He owns a local delicatessen in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the day, he sweeps the sidewalk outside his shop. Each customer that enters is entrusted with this space. A mutual respect. An exchange. The shopkeeper’s responsibility is not only for the shop’s interior world but for the sidewalk—a site of reciprocity in the city. The day ends, and he sweeps again.

This relationship is common, and exchanges between citizens in the city happen all the time. Yet it’s important to explore the boundaries of this reciprocity. There are imbalances in urban relationships, not every space is designed for the inclusion of all citizens. And when privately owned public space exists, sometimes these spaces are not offered to everyone. However, we can still have unexpected moments of generosity and serendipity. Urbanity that forms our everyday life overrides the built space that forms our interrelated experiences. By looking closely at reciprocity, we can dismantle the typical binary relationships in urban space; the shopkeeper and the customer are not opposites, but engaged together in the construction of an interior and exterior world. In theatre, it could be seen as a flip between actor and spectator.

The narrative of the shopkeeper is not unique to a street in Brooklyn; these narratives are embedded in all of our urban environments. Perhaps that act of reciprocity manifests itself in simply maintaining our waste - a public good that allows us to be aware of what we use in our domestic lives and how that is discarded in the outside world. Perhaps it is revealed as public art that’s displayed in the city without being defaced. As citizens of the world, we agree to unspoken rules. In New Haven, there is a new mural addition downtown on the side of Brick Oven Pizza. It is a depiction of Muhammad Ali made local—cultural iconography can be appreciated in a variety of ways. Memory comes into play. Can we uphold or promote ordinary experiences when we construct our spaces? Becoming stewards of our local environment is an act of promotion. If we do the best we can to look after our spaces, indirectly we take care of our citizens too. Stewarding should not be seen as a noble act but a common one. The generations after us need to bear witness to what has come before them and build upon compounded effects. The common ground on which we pace leaves traces that mutate our urban space.

The scenarios posed are romanticized to some degree. But, I assure you, they are commonly overlooked. To bring the ongoing reciprocity between urban dwellers and the city itself to the fore is necessary. There is an acute need for maintenance in architecture. The spaces we as architects build are more than their physical manifestation; they are reflexive, always responding to the surrounding conditions. This is nothing new, but it deserves to be seen with new eyes. We must repeat that process. Revisiting paths that we all take, re-addressing things that we all see is different than the first time. When we embrace time and haptic experiences, our accumulation of shared collective understandings brings us to new grounds. With another lens, we can see that we ourselves are reflected on the street on which we live. Through reciprocity, care and maintenance, being stewards become the archetype in how we operate and design in our urban space. We begin to see ourselves in a new way.

Publication Date
April 3, 2021
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