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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

ListenListen to this

Social spaces – private and public

Bill McGowan

Cities have long been associated with the existence of a variety of public places where people can meet and congregate on their own terms and where there are also opportunities to meet under very formal rules of engagement. Crouch (1994) uses the phrase ‘open space’ to identify all freely walkable public spaces in towns and cities including town squares, parks, pedestrian precincts, pocket gardens, allotments, canal paths, public concourses etc. Public space lies beyond the front door of our home and the garden gate. Stokols, cited in Herbert and Thomas (1990) makes a distinction between primary and secondary environments. A primary environment is the place where we spend most time as in the home, and the secondary environment is everywhere other than the family space of the home. This secondary environment is used only in a transitory way, often has formal rules of engagement and is where people spend their time when not at home, in places such as shopping malls, supermarkets, employment centres, work locations, GP waiting rooms, bus shelters, public toilets, parks, playgrounds, streets, and roads.

The house in which we live is the primary locale for home-making and is located and embedded within a wider spatial landscape of public space. As a primary environment, the home serves an important expressive function but this psychological and emotional significance is often overlooked in relation to town planning and wider public health.

In this respect, an understanding of the deeper psychological significance of the house, the garden, and open space takes on greater importance when considering their potential contribution to the wider field of public health.

Private spaces – house, hearth and home

A dwelling is a cultural universal and in western industrial societies, a house provides the physical space and shelter which we need for survival. Bachelard (1994) points out that a dwelling can be more than just a place of physical safety. It is also a nest, a sanctuary and a place to retire to – a place of our own which has an important role in identity formation and in the preservation of self esteem. Rybczynski (1988) points out that it is only in the past three hundred years that the idea of a private, personal life and the concept of home as a comfortable retreat and private intimate space evolved and with it the notion of individual self-confidence and self-esteem. It is an important intimate social space, the interior of which is structured to reflect and communicate a sense of who and what we are through the structuring and use of room spaces and the artefacts (furniture, decor etc) with which we furnish them. A dwelling is transformed and becomes a home when we make it uniquely ours and through the attribution of emotional and psychological significance, it becomes an extension of the self, providing a physical and psychological boundary demarcating our private intimate world from the public world outside. Saunders (1989) points out that the home plays a central role in people’s consciousness, particularly in relation to their sense of ontological security. It is a refuge to which they can retreat and be themselves, an ‘escape attempt’ and an intimate sphere of autonomy.

Tait (1996) suggests that the sense of ‘home’ which we hold in our psyche is related to a personal set of experiences and expectations – occupying an inner space related to our sense of self. Our childhood memories of home are usually permeated by feelings about interactions with parents or siblings and by a sense of a particular quality of relatedness that we may take for granted and regard as normal. The house becomes a ‘home’ or ‘social womb’ and may be thought about with some sense of belonging or benevolent identification. A home therefore provides a retreat or refuge from the outside world and the public gaze.

However, for some the experience of home may be loaded with and evoke negative feeling or some sense of ambivalence. It may represent the prison which confines them or it may be where the ‘hurt’ is located. Houses, places, buildings and landscapes may also evoke negative feelings and images because of the historical use to which they were put and/or their association with antisocial or unsavory activities or events.


Crouch, D. (1994) The Popular Culture of City Parks: Comedia in association with Demos, Working Paper No 9.

Herbert, D. T. and Thomas, C. J. (1990) Cities as Space: City as Place. David Fulton Publishers, London.

Bachelard, G. (1994) The Poetics of Space. Boston MA, Beacon Press.

Rybczynski, W. (1988) Home: A Short History; Heineman, London.

Saunders, P. (1989) The Constitution of the 'Home' in Contemporary English Culture, Housing Studies: 4(2), pp 177-192

Tait, M. (1996) Thinking about internal space with homeless young people: New Directions – Newsletter of Good Practices in Mental Health, Spring 1996.

McGowan, B. (2003) Private spaces, open spaces and asylum. Therapeutic communities, The International Journal for Therapeutic and Supportive Organizations Autumn 2003 Vol. 24 No. 3.

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