Town squares are public space where messy things happen.
When the founders wrote the constitution of the United States of America, the first amendment stated that “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” And much of that assembling over the years has been in town squares.
When Victor Gruen invented the American indoor shopping mall, he thought it would “provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.” That didn’t quite work out as planned, because, as he quickly learned, private malls are not town squares.
Now Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior VP of retail, tells us that their retail business is rebranding. “We don’t call them stores anymore, we call them town squares, because they’re gathering places for the 500 million people who visit us every year. Places where everyone’s welcome, and where all of Apple comes together."
I am an Apple fanboi from the watch on my wrist to the MacBook Pro I am writing this post on, but I have also complained about Apple’s urban planning since they announced Apple Park. It demonstrated what Apple thinks about suburbia, and now we learn what they think about cities.
Town squares are traditionally public space, and not everything that happens in public space is pretty. Sometimes the line between public and private space gets muddied, such as it did in New York’s Zuccotti park during the Occupy Wall Street days. It was a POPS, or privately owned public space, which is a different realm, operating under different rules. But at least it is open to the public 24 hours a day and is used by all kinds of people.
An Apple store is not public space of any kind. You cannot move in and occupy it. You cannot stand up on a soapbox and preach the virtues of Android phones or Windows operating systems. Visitors do not have a constitutionally protected right of assembly. There is no question that retail spaces have become meeting places, but they are not public space; they are not public squares. As Alexis Madrigal notes in the Atlantic:
Since the 19th century, stores have served as gathering places for people. American department stores had cafés and gardens and all sorts of places for people to hang out. But they would have never had the audacity to confuse themselves with town squares. The nice stuff was just a way of bringing customers to the store to purchase goods.
Town squares are often messy. A UK satire of Apple’s Town Squares suggests that they will need AI robots to simulate reality by having drunken brawls at closing time, just like real British town squares.
So now at 6.02pm each day, thirty or so AI robots will appear from nowhere and start to attack each other, for no apparent reason. We are constantly innovating and are hoping to create AI robots to sick up kebabs, flag down imaginary taxis, and ask our female customers to give them a flash of their breasts.
More seriously, town squares are where public stuff happens. In Turkey, the Public Square was the genesis of a movement. Nilüfer Göle described it:
The Gezi movement has united people in a square and around a tree against the polarizing policies and rhetoric of the ruling party. It has brought together people, ideas, lifestyles and clubs that are hard to get to come together, including young and old people, students and bureaucrats, feminists and housewives, Muslims and leftists, Kurds and Alevis, Kemalists and communists, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş supporters. These people might have taken the stage perhaps only for a moment, but that moment has been engraved on the square and on the collective memory.
Imagine that happening in the Istanbul Apple “public square.”
In the US, the town square and the right of public assembly is under attack. States are passing laws making it illegal to block roads and making it legal to run over people who do. Public spaces continue to be privatized and even public facilities like libraries are turning into Apple stores. But as Henry Grabar notes in Slate, this trend has been happening for a while.
As public libraries cut hours or closed entirely, McDonald’s provided a clean, safe space for kids to do their homework. As understaffed public bathrooms deteriorated and closed, Starbucks became the de facto place to go in many cities. As the dream of a free public education recedes, Apple teaches people how to do stuff for free. It’s easy to be grateful. If we didn’t have a Starbucks bathroom, where would we pee? If we didn’t have an Apple plaza, where would we sit? On the other hand, if we had not designed a society so friendly to the interests of corporations and their executives, we might still be able to provide those things ourselves.
We need to protect the definition of the town square. It’s public space, owned by all citizens, and we shouldn’t let the term and definition be co-opted by Apple. It has already demonstrated with Apple Park that it doesn’t know how to build suburbs; let’s not let them loose on town squares.