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Stores Are Not Town Squares

Apple’s “town squares” are a cynical depiction of public life in America today.

Stores Are Not Town Squares
[Screenshot: Apple]

In the first few minutes of Apple’s annual iPhone launch event today, sandwiched between a dedication of the event space to the late Steve Jobs and a promotional video about the Apple Watch, audience members were treated to a brief interlude about the company’s architecture. In addition to opening its brand-new $5 billion Cupertino headquarters designed by Norman Foster, the company is in the process of overhauling its retail design–including re-naming hundreds of stores “town squares.”

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“We don’t call them stores anymore, we call them town squares,” said Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, on stage describing these gathering spaces.

[Screenshot: Apple]
It’s a grimly realistic description of life in the U.S. today. A few truths: The creep of private entities into public space is decades-old. New York City has long been colonized by privately owned public spaces, which are managed by private companies. More than 500 plazas, parks, streetscapes, and other public areas are now managed by private companies in New York alone. Meanwhile, Americans are spending more of their free time shopping. The annual American Time Use Survey, published by the Department of Labor in 2016, showed that the average American spends 45 minutes per day shopping, compared with about 20 on “civic or religious activities.”

Without the budget or political support to create new public spaces in cities, it’s no surprise that corporations have stepped in. Apple has logical reasons for offering up spaces to “gather” for the public; the company wants to get more people into its stores, and offer more events to create a community around its line of products. Apple is far from alone in this approach; new malls across the country include “squares” and gathering spaces.

But the subtle shift in nomenclature matters. Stores will never be public spaces. They are regulated, surveilled, and designed by companies for specific purposes. Sensors, which can measure things like foot traffic and record everything from faces to sounds, are now ubiquitous in retail stores, and will only become more powerful; for instance, Amazon’s experimental Go store watches what you pick up so you never have to check out.

Stores aren’t sustainable as public spaces in the long-term, either: Malls and retail complexes have a short shelf life. They are not built in neighborhoods that truly need town squares and plazas. They’re subject to rules, written and unwritten, that actual public spaces are not–rules shaped by the concerns of the companies that design and manage them. Daniel Moeckli puts it best in his 2016 book, Exclusion from Public Space: A Comparative Constitutional Analysis:

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Private and semi-public spaces are designed to produce a sensation of similarity, a ‘we’ feeling within a homogeneous community. As a consequence, they reduce the kinds of otherness that are found to be bearable: in these forms of space, the the presence of different types of people becomes a subject of concern… The trend towards privatization of public space may thus undermine the development of people’s capacity to accommodate living with others, the development of the ‘public sense of self’ on which democracy relies.

Don’t get me wrong; public life has always been bound up with the economy and shopping. The two are linked, but they are not synonymous. In 2017, the right to safely assemble in public has never been more vital nor more important. We should be fighting for truly public spaces, and using the ones we have more frequently–not ceding them to a sub-genre of retail designed and managed by companies. Calling a store a “town square” just dilutes the value of actual public spaces.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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