Learning Grounds for Conviviality
November 29, 2022
Learning Grounds for Conviviality
November 29, 2022

Some friction is a natural feature of public spaces, even a good sign. Parks and libraries are ideal places for learning how to live with difference.

By Tommi Laitio

Restrooms and comic books. 

Irrigation and irritation.

Dates and disagreements. 

Boilers and boomboxes. 

About this Photo: The central staircase at the Oodi Helsinki Central Library is a work of art by Otto Karvonen that dedicates the library to 400 different identities. It is a welcoming reminder that the library genuinely belongs to all people, regardless of any factor. (Image Credit: City of Helsinki / Tuomas Uusheimo)

Public spaces are all of these things and more.

Over the last ten months, as a Fellow at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University, I have talked to more than 200 park, library, research, and city leaders and staff members from more than 40 cities all the way from Fortaleza, Amsterdam, and Philadelphia to my hometown of Helsinki. I have been moved by storytime sessions with children, walking tours full of local history, zombie wrapping contests, and innovations on a range of pressing topics like biodiversity, promoting physical activity, democratic dialogue, and programming during COVID.

What this range of conversations tells me is that parks and libraries can be inspiring and safe learning grounds for living in a diverse world – and thus an essential component of democratic society, especially in times like today when polarized political conversations can cause us to feel divided. Parks and libraries allow us to share resources without forcing us to shared action.

But there has also been another layer in our conversations. While the discussions have highlighted all the beautiful things that happen in libraries and parks, I have heard just as many stories of how public spaces deal with homelessness, mental health, the opioid crisis, surveillance, the smell of urine, anti-masking aggression towards staff, and threats to freedom of speech. Parks and libraries are also arenas of contention, pain, hardship, and inequity.

These discussions have convinced me that for parks and libraries to live up to their fullest potential as civic spaces, we need to embrace the full spectrum of life in them. Seizing this opportunity requires us to recalibrate our ideals of good public spaces. True diversity of people surfaces a diversity of needs and goals, and that is bound to create friction. In truly inspiring and inclusive public spaces there’s likely to be someone who hovers around, speaks too loud, cuts in line, takes up too much space, hoards resources, parks their car in the wrong place, blasts music too loud, or smells. And that someone might be us. We might be the people who intentionally or unintentionally make others feel that this place actually is not for everyone. 

The notion of conviviality – the capacity to live together – is a growing area of inquiry in social and cultural studies of cities, as well as a potential framework for the design of inclusive public spaces and cross-cultural dialogues. In English, the notion of conviviality easily has an association to festivity or happiness. In Spanish, convivencia has a contentious dimension. Convivencia emphasizes the constant need and commitment to practice the way we share space and resources with others.

According to Rishbert & Rogaly, this broader notion of conviviality does not pose it as something easy or purely positive, but rather being “at ease” with difference. It is having the rights, skills, and resilience to act in unpredictable situations. This notion of conviviality that embraces friction makes it applicable for public space development as it starts from unpredictable behaviors of free individuals and emphasizes the role of spatial design and skills. It is like a crowded dance floor where we need to find a way to fit our own movements to the space, the music, and our fellow dancers. Just like at a dance club, the design and staff play a major role in creating a friendly atmosphere, but everything cannot be predicted or planned. At times we bump into others, accidentally spill our drink on them, or step on someone’s toes. But when we find the rhythm with others, magic happens. We feel free and powerful. We feel like we belong.

Our democracies depend on our institutional and individual capacity for conviviality. Lack of capabilities for conviviality feeds an anxiety that we are in a zero-sum game, that someone needs to lose for us to win. It incentivizes us to claim territory and refrain from public life. When we lack positive to neutral social interaction or cohabitation across different walks of life, we risk showing less interest in the wellbeing of others and have less means to identify shared interests and collectively organize for change.

Creating convivial spaces is easier said than done. According to planning theorist John Forester (2009), in order to build conditions for dealing with difference, it is fundamental to foster learning and to seek pragmatic solutions based on the differences, not despite the differences. Public space developers have to be clear that the intention is not to make everyone the same. Our focus should be on behavior and the capabilities to deal with conflict and friction. Conviviality functions well as a design principle in everything from programming, staffing, and public art to spatial design.

A good example of how a space builds capabilities for conviviality is artist Otto Karvonen’s public art installation “Dedication” in the main staircase of Helsinki’s Oodi Central Library. It consists of around 400 dedications to various identities. Not all of the identities are what one would call positive. Dedicating the library to everyone from the disappointed and skeptics to the misguided and foot-draggers, the library communicates that we are not expecting you to be or think in a certain way to be welcome in this space. The artwork was developed with the public, and the final list of words was jointly curated by the artist, a human rights specialist, and a novelist. It recognizes joy and affiliation but also sorrow and isolation. As people walk up and down the staircase, they can find themselves even through identities that are painful or hidden.

The recognition of friction is not about glorifying disruption and annoyance; what’s annoying will continue to feel annoying. But striving for harmony in an urban environment will always mean that someone uses power by excluding others, so accepting friction is a true test of our commitment to equity. Choosing conviviality as the starting point for public innovation allows us to provide incredible experiences that foster joy and connection and push us way beyond what we could’ve imagined – and ones in which park and library staff can flourish in their work. A convivial space can also be one of care, play, vulnerability, empathy, and enthusiasm. It is one where we all can feel that we are seen and recognized as a somebody, as a distinct person with our own story. It can be a multi-sensory experience of beauty, music, flavor, laughter, scent, and touch. It’s living fully with others. The capability and motivation to enter a public space is a prerequisite – to quote Nobel laureate Amartya Sen – for a life one has reason to value.

Tommi Laitio is the inaugural Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow leading research on the skills and practices local governments need for partnerships for parks and libraries. He is on a leave of absence from his position as Executive Director for Culture and Leisure in the City of Helsinki in Finland.


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