Space and Place: The Media Construct Reality

03 Oct


Often, our memories, both pleasant and challenging, are infused with the spaces that surrounded us as those memories were made. Our favourite moments may have us connected to the vista at a national park, a warm morning spent swimming in the sun, or sitting fireside with loved ones. This construction of memories and personal impressions is an ongoing dialogue between individuals and their environments. Upon returning to a space, that impression may be changed. Beyond the personal spaces that we can shape and control and mould to our tastes, spaces created for “us” by government and business impact and shape our experiences, perhaps in ways we do not always notice or consider. Nonetheless, “place” can help to shape our ongoing impressions of the world. This week’s twitter chat examined and explored the connection between ourselves and the spaces around us and how these spaces shape us and our behaviours.

We began our chat with a brief re-examination of the term “media”. If we consider a medium to be something which communicates data or information for a purpose, as a pathway for between a message and its intended audience, then much of the constructed world around us does speak.


Civic and public spaces reflect the society who constructs them; what is meaningful or purposeful is shaped into the language of the constructed spaces. It’s often easiest to see this dialogue in historical spaces. The Arch of Constantine in Rome was used in a particular way, served the purpose of reflecting Constantine’s reign,  the Roman’s understanding of their history, as well as their power and dominance as an imperial force. But not all places and spaces have an overt visual map for us to read. How do we begin to think critically about the spaces that are carefully constructed, for a particular purpose that may not be as overt? How are government buildings constructed to reflect our democratic principles? How are schools constructed and how does that construction enhance or inhibit student learning? What do the physical layout and spaces of our homes and neighbourhoods, parks and recreation centres say about our values and what is more or less important to us?

In anticipating this discussion some basic questions Ms. Keats began to consider in the construction of spaces and its impact on our reality (ah, the 5W’s and 1H!):

Who—Who is responsible for the design and/or the construction? Who will be using the space? Who is welcome in the space (whose needs are taken into account) and who might feel uneasy there?

What—What is the purpose/intent of the design of the space? What are the materials being used? What factors or trends influence its design/design principles? What are its structure, size, exterior and interior space like?

Where—Where is the building/place located? Where else could it have been constructed (and why was the final site chosen)?

When—When was this space constructed? What else was happening at that time? Did those events influence the construction or plan of the space? Does the space reflect certain values or priorities of the time?

How—How does this space reflect the builders intent? How might the design be “missing the mark”? How has this type of space changed over time? How does the construction of the new space/place affect the community? How does it change the way that people interact? How does it communicate its purpose? How do the elements of the space (open spaces, walls, sidewalks, grass, closed spaces, doors, materials used, windows etc) influence how people use that space? How might the space be used in unintended ways?

 Why—Why might someone have a positive or negative impression of this space? Is that impression an intention of the builders’ biases, beliefs, or viewpoints? Why would people use this space? Why would they avoid it? Why would some people’s or groups’ needs be taken into account over others?


Ms. Solomon began to reflect on an activity that she did in her Media Studies AQ course. “Reading the Street” is an activity where participants take a walk through a section of their own city/town/neighbourhood. Students are asked to look at the area with new eyes, to “make the familiar strange”, and to document the experience. Participants may use audio, video or photography to document the experience. They then choose the media texts that they like best to present to the class, while connecting those texts to one of the Key Concepts. In the spring, Ms. Solomon’s class spent a Saturday walking through several distinct areas of Toronto. Her group took pictures (see the images in this post for some of Ms. Solomon’s photographs) and produced this video:

The video spends a minute or less at most of the intersections they passed. Many of the questions asked above could be asked of this video. Who or what is prioritized at each intersection? Is the purpose to accommodate cars and traffic, or pedestrian travel? What is the car/person ratio of each? Whose needs are prioritized? How do lights and signs contribute to how people use the space? How much of each space is occupied by commercial interests (like advertisements, posters, billboards)? Government interests?  Are there public spaces not connected to commercial interests?

While the above activity centred on reading the “street”, teachers and students could easily use the same principles to read their school spaces (more questions on school below). An activity could focus on a close reading of the classroom or a broad examination of the school as a whole.

Ms. Keats began to think about how one aspect of city life is the use of public transportation, in particular, subways. And how the general concept and formula for a subway system morphs from city to city. Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal all have subways...and each move a significant portion of citizens every day. However, the experience of subway travel differs because each city is different, was constructed at different times by different bureaucracies, and contains different consumer messages. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell mentions the profound shift that happened in the NYC subway because transit officials wanted to make riding the subway safer during a time when subway station violence was rampant. Their solution was to focus a zero-tolerance approach to fare-jumping and vandalism, two of the lesser illegal actions. What happened as these two problems dwindled, incredibly, was also the decline of violent crime—people began to behave differently within the space. When riders saw cleaner-looking subway cars and stations, when people no longer stood by as fare-jumpers tried to score a free ride, there was a shift on what people saw when they were in the space. If small infractions were carefully monitored and punished, people learned that larger crimes were no longer worth the risk.  Same space, different reality.

 The same can be said for our school spaces.  How our schools have been constructed reflect the ongoing theories and experiments within the educational system. New schools are not necessarily better than old; but they do reflect the current beliefs and limitations of our current bureaucracies. These spaces impact students, staff, parents, and the larger community. How is the building creating an impression on the people who move through its space? Where do people enter? Is it welcoming, daunting, grim? Is there artwork within the hallways; if so who created it? How are classrooms organized within the building—are there subject corridors? Are some classes cross-curricular? Is there natural as well as artificial light? How are classrooms organized and designed? How are the desks laid out? How does the layout of the communal spaces shape the people who move through them? Auditoriums and theatres, cafeterias and libraries, interior or exterior gathering places create an impression for our students. Do they feel ownership of the building where they spend so much of their waking lives? What does the reality of the space feel like for them? Can all students move easily through the space? How can the layout of the building be limiting for some students? Just like the example of the NYC subway above, what are changes that could reshape a negative reality?

Beyond the physical world, the virtual world creates spaces that can in turn shape our reality. A social medium like Twitter creates a collaborative network that draws people to one another, creating a space for the sharing of ideas and opinions, leaving us to feel connected to people we may otherwise have passed without notice on the street. This online reality is being constructed by those who participate in it, and their experiences and impressions are being shaped by this particular medium.  Facebook offers yet another space in which certain elements are prioritized over others. Why might a Facebook profile look the way it does? How does it differ from other social media profiles? How does Facebook create a virtual environment that is so appealing to so many around the world? What are some of the concerns about that reality and how it’s constructed?

The opportunities for discussion with this key concept and focus are many and varied and we’ve barely scratched the surface! What aspect of the discussion might you explore in your classroom? We’d love to continue the discussion with you in the comments below.

Ms. Keats & Ms. Solomon