Workplace + Public Realm: Territoriality Boundaries

Workplace + Public Realm: Territoriality Boundaries

A successful Public Mesh hinges upon an understanding of how to conduct oneself and interact with others in the complicated network of territoriality and boundaries that is the public realm. The formation of public space relies upon the negotiation of social and physical boundaries between individuals, between groups, and within the larger collective. In an ideal public space, each individual and group coexists in a secure social contract with other members of the public; in reality, the social contract is considerably complicated by public space.

Great public places, therefore strike a balance between ambiguity and clarity. While territories in the public realm are inherently ambiguous, physical boundaries offer spatial cues that reflect and shape aspiration, human behavior, and the rules of civic engagement. On a stroll through Washington Square Park, one should expect the unexpected, but it’s generally safe to assume some degree of anonymity and privacy while sitting next to a stranger on a bench facing the fountain. As studies such as William H. Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” have shown, people tend to abide both spatial cues and unwritten codes of social engagement. 

Tactical Urbanism & Boosterism was a topic explored by students curious about low cost, grassroots ways of influencing urban networks and the built environment. Small-scale urban interventions, like those of Park(ing) Day or food trucks, have shown how tactical urbansim 

can be used to prototype permanent changes to the public realm. Boosterism, a term used herein to describe the promotion of a location through the sharing of information (via social media, ratings systems, databases, maps) can similarly shape the built environment by driving demand. The students’ work offers tactical urbanism and boosterism as low-stakes means towards influencing territoriality and boundaries within the Public Mesh. The public impetus in these techniques reveals that the Public Mesh is a two-way street, with the potential to emerge from public interests as much as private ones. 

On the topic of Collaboration, students sought to gain a deeper understanding of how people interact within space, what shapes their shifting territories, and what boundaries best support collaboration or focus. 

Several aspects related to territoriality and boundaries were integral to the student work: 

Domain: People feel ownership, however temporary, over the space they occupy
Network: Minor changes to a system of spaces can result in great transformation
Interaction: Interaction requires boundaries that balance public and private modes

Affecting territoriality and boundaries in a way that makes them both evident and adaptable was the goal of students’ work in this chapter, with the intent of balancing the needs of an individual with the needs of a broader population. 


Because territoriality is a basic human instinct, it applies to the public realm as well as private. The public realm has long been the space of territorial ambiguity and has spawned techniques like tactical urbanism as a way to operate within this indeterminacy and address problems. As the need for collaboration has sponsored open office environments, the ambiguity of this workspace model—territories no longer clearly defined by private offices or even cubicles—has created its own set of problems. What lessons from the public realm can be drawn into the workplace, and vice versa? 

The idealized public space, much like the idealized open office, is one in which people meet without hierarchy: they observe each other, exchange ideas, encounter new people. An actual public space is more complicated, more freighted with anxiety, the side effect of testing social boundaries. But in the public realm, dissonance can lead to growth and understanding or it can lead to conflict and crime. Perhaps in the same way, the testing of social boundaries in the workplace can lead to collaboration and engagement or it can lead to exhaustion and distraction. There are ways to structure a public space that help make it more the former than the latter and we can adapt these understandings to the open office environment. The essence of it is to understand that territoriality and boundaries are a fundamental part of social interaction—through means spoken and signaled, we negotiate our place in relation to others. Architecture can help structure interactions in a way that clarifies these dynamics. 

The Public Mesh necessitates a careful negotiation of boundaries so that the collective understands how to engage with one another in this hybridized, public/private space— especially with regards to security. 

This is the sixth post of a seven part series tied to our recent publication, Workplace + Public Realm, which follows a yearlong research studio with Stanford University and Northeastern University. You can read the introduction here