The spaces we inhabit | Inquirer Opinion
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The spaces we inhabit

/ 05:03 AM December 02, 2022

Our relationship with the spaces we inhabit has transformed drastically over the last couple of years. The emergence of infectious diseases shaped our behavior and how we design our physical environment. COVID-19, in particular, tested the resilience of our communities and cities. It forced us into isolation, obliged us to observe physical distancing, and altered our living space into a workspace. While our circumstances today have improved significantly, some of the changes brought about by the pandemic are here for good.

Despite the easing of restrictions, many of us continue to work from home. This shift has brought many advantages to workers, such as being closer to family, saving money otherwise used for food, rent, and transportation, and protecting ourselves from the virus that lingers.

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However, working from home has downsides as well. Like many who telecommute, I have experienced “Zoom fatigue” and burnout. Sometimes, employers also make the error of believing we’re accessible anytime because our work is mainly online; hence, we may feel anxious even during our supposed downtime.

Knowing when to rest can be tricky when you work in your place of rest. It’s crucial to set clear boundaries so that our work doesn’t negatively interfere with our home life and vice versa. But having space to separate both worlds is a luxury not many have. Most of us share living spaces with someone, and it’s not uncommon for tension and conflict to arise. If this is the case, where do we retreat when we don’t want to be productive? Where do we go when problems at home become too much to bear?

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Public spaces such as streets, sidewalks, parks, libraries, and museums offer temporary refuge for people who want a break from the stresses of work and life. These are areas within the city where people have free access and right of way. Financial barriers to entering these spaces are limited or nonexistent. City dwellers greatly benefit from public spaces whether or not they are aware of them.

For someone who lives in the bustling city center, public spaces have become essential to maintaining my physical and mental well-being. After a long day at work, I roam the city’s streets alone or with a companion. The walk temporarily takes my mind off work and things I’m dealing with at home while I complete my daily 10,000 steps and catch up with a friend. Of course, my problems don’t magically disappear, but I usually go home with a different perspective than before I left.

I also occasionally visit the public library near my house. Sad to say, the Carlos P. Romulo Library and Museum has seen better days. The tables and chairs are worn from use and time, while the textbooks and learning materials are out-of-date. But I go anyway because it’s free, there’s air-conditioning on warm days, and I like a dedicated place to read for pleasure. Libraries, archives, and museums are more than just spaces for leisure and education; they provide equal opportunities for the underprivileged to access the knowledge they need to make informed choices.

Increased socialization is another benefit of having public spaces. A well-designed public space invites people across diverse cultural backgrounds and social classes to be in one place. Parks, for example, facilitate serendipitous meetings and meaningful exchanges among different groups or individuals. I recall many precious moments shared with street vendors in Burnham Park, pony boys in Wright Park, and fellow activists in Igorot Park when I was studying in Baguio. These encounters add to the city’s vitality and bring a sense of community to its citizens.

The benefits that come from public spaces aren’t always self-evident and tangible. They exist in the periphery and day-to-day lived experiences of the people who inhabit them. Unlike malls, business establishments, and pseudo-public spaces that encourage consumerism and police uncooperative behavior, true public spaces provide citizens with agency.

Unfortunately, privatization and commercialization threaten the existence of public spaces because they’re not deemed “productive” in the capitalist sense of the word, just as downtime is looked down upon in today’s work culture. Nevertheless, any community member or union organizer will agree that both are extremely valuable.

When COVID-19 spread across the globe, access to public spaces became restricted, halting life as we knew it. It also crippled social movements and silenced dissent in the streets. As primary stakeholders, we must take back our right to the city. We must conserve every inch of public space; otherwise, we risk losing them to repressive governments or privately owned companies, corporations, and developers. We must not allow political or business interests to further encroach on our civic spaces and, therefore, our democratic freedoms.

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Thriving public spaces are a sign of a functioning democracy and good stewardship. We can safeguard these spaces by participating in the decision-making process concerning their use and management. Collaborating with civil society organizations engaged in dialogue with city planners is another way to ensure that all parties have an equal vote in what happens to the spaces in their community. As a collective, we must hold public officials to account and urge them to enact laws that protect public spaces. Lastly, we must invest a great deal of time, effort, and resources into maintaining and improving the conditions of these spaces because we, the public, are the ones who will benefit most from them in the long run.

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Jeromy Verayo, 24, is from Tarlac City. He is a researcher and writer of the peripheral, nostalgic, and intangible. After work, you can find him walking in the city.

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TAGS: Carlos P. Romulo, COVID-19, Parks, public spaces
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