There’s an older Asian couple in my neighbourhood who on some afternoons do something similar to tai chi or qigong by the back entrance of a local school. They play chants on a portable music player, take their shoes off and perform their rites. Before they come, the space is uncontested, a few square meters of concrete nestled between a brick wall and an unruly chestnut tree. When they come, you can barely see them. They take nothing, leave nothing, and they probably never ask anyone for permission. Most importantly, they don’t go to some designated tai chi spot in the park. There’s no Facebook event for these two-person sessions. Just a couple of ordinary people making a piece of public space their own.
The city I live in, the city I lived in for the majority of my life, has a bunch of public spaces. And it’s a good thing. Something I’m most likely taking for granted. There are playgrounds and vast parks, nature trails and basketball courts, and places to play petanque and disc golf. There’s even a GIS map of all the active leisure spots. Catalogued, categorised by quality (decrepit is a common keyword), searchable. Where a makeshift baseball field once was (the sport has its adherents even in Lithuania), there are now four neat barbeque stations, and two beach volleyball pitches.
Being able to do everything – from working out to playing fetch with your dog and from skiing to Nordic walking without leaving the comfy vicinity of my borough – is a privilege I don’t appreciate enough. Yet there is something I find pernicious in the way urban space is designated, signposted, marked. I don’t think there’s a nefarious force involved – the action of partitioning the cityscape into areas happens not in the minds of the city’s urban planners, but in the shared psyche of its denizens.
For instance, there’s the famous sakura park – a small patch of land by a crumbling hotel, the city’s first “mall” which shed every bit of its Soviet past except for the name – The Central Universal Store – and a rather busy street. When its dozen or so sakura trees bloom, it’s a major event. The city folk go there to take pictures, seemingly all at once. You can barely figure out the Japanese trees amidst the forest of wool parkas and light overcoats (the trees bloom in mid-season, when no one really knows what to wear). The act of going to see the sakuras blurs the line between a charming tradition and a mass obsession. A few weeks after the sakuras lose their petals, hundreds of lilacs, plums, apple trees and jasmine bushes bloom in people’s backyards, yet people would pass them without acknowledging their beauty. They’ve snapped that mandatory selfie by the sakuras. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, and in Vilnius the time to appreciate the coming of nature is the week when the sakura trees bloom.
Open-air festivals and color runs, happenings, and even boujiee events like Dîner en Blanc transform parts of the city for a few hours. The mass appeal of a space or activity tacitly means that we have permission to be there, and that we won’t look ridiculous taking part in one activity or the other. We want to be sure that we’re using the space in a way that’s approved. And in the case of my city, it’s not a matter of bans and restrictions, brilliantly unravelled by Nick Hayes in The Book of Tresspas, but rather a matter of mindset. If you want to have a picnic in the city, in my city at least, which is pretty green, you can have it virtually anywhere. In the shade of a forgotten apple orchard on a hill, by the old pagan shrine in the woods, on one of the many hillforts or meadows that are woven into the tapestry of urban development. You can make memories in a place that is yours and yours alone for the time you need it. Yet, most citizens will flock to the same three spots by the river, where they sit on their blankets, enjoy homemade avocado and lox sandwiches, and squint at the sun. It’s a beautiful sight, but I’d rather see it be distributed across the city, with people creating spaces for themselves, just like the qigong couple does it.
It’s funny, how in a society of individualists, we seek permission, approval and legitimization when it comes to the most mundane things. A person might spend hours reading about forest bathing, a Japanese practice that touts the benefits of walking in the woods. They may even hire a certified forest bathing facilitator for their friend group or work team, which often serves as a substitute for a genuine circle of friends. Yet they will scoff at the idea of literally just going into the woods with no plan. And for many, it’s easier to sign up for a walking tour of another neighbourhood than to go and explore it for themselves. In a world where every experience has a landing page and a hashtag, spontaneity and serendipity are, of course, out of the question.
Do I want hippies grilling seitan sausages in my proverbial backyard? Grown-ups building a snowman just for the fun of it? Dreadlocked teenagers learning the basic rhythmic structures on annoyingly loud djembes in public? I could tell you for sure when I saw it, but the short answer is yes. Seeing people doing things in public, in spaces not designated for their activities, brings me the same pleasant feeling as seeing my neighbour walking her cat on a leash.