Public time as a commons: the missing element for the urban justice

Public time as a commons: the missing element for the urban justice


by Margherita Valle – LabGov Costa Rica

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common,

But lets the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

anonymous English poem



A few weeks ago, the publication of a study that I carried out with my colleague prof. Franklin Ramirez came out in the prestigious scientific magazine Cities.

The publication of this study represents an important professional achievement in the search for a tool for measuring a rather forgotten lack of urban life, public time. Often when talking about cities the most frequent term is public space, however for a space, along with its qualities, to be defined, it is necessary that it have the possibility of something happening there. So it is necessary to ask first of all, how much time do people have to live/make public space?

This is a first question that my research team asked ourselves, a few years ago, in the face of the considerable loss of daily time in the daily trips from home to work of the population residing in the large metropolitan area of San Jose, Costa Rica – however from any medium-large city in the world.

After compiling several studies on the impact of travel times, we hypothesized that the same urban typology could be the cause of a lack of public time. It should be said that the definition of public time arises from a theoretical reflection that we previously shared with the scientific community in the article “Lack of public time between urban de-planning and identity component: The case of Costa Rica” in the magazine Arquitectura y Sociedad (2022)“.

So the main objective of our study was to analyze whether in the GAM the population residing in more diffuse areas had a different availability of pubic time, compared to the population residing in compact and mixed areas.



Before delving into the details of our research, I’d like to take a moment to address a topic that has long fascinated and concerned me from a scientific standpoint. In recent years we have heard a lot about urban justice, however, what is different about urban justice from simple Justice as a general term? If I can give my point of view, it pertains to addressing a specific set of injustices that have systematically developed within urban environments.

Personally captivated by the social dynamics of the “civitas,” I recognize cities as vast and intricate crucibles of humanity’s challenges. They serve as focal points where various forms of injustice, inequality, fraud, neglect, and cynicism converge. It could be argued that cities serve as the birthplace of various injustices that extend beyond urban boundaries. Remote from urban centers, we witness the depletion of natural resources, deforestation, pollution from chemical dumping, and the displacement of populations from their lands. These actions often stem from initiatives designed to perpetuate urban expansion, catering to the incessant production and consumption of unnecessary goods.

Social and ecological injustices are intricately linked to the concept and management of common goods—resources like land, water, air, and food. Throughout history, the transition of these resources from common to private ownership has given rise to systemic injustices, including disparities in access to essential needs.

Today, we witness a subtler manifestation of this manipulation, particularly in urban settings. Millions of people endure daily struggles for basic necessities like shelter, water, and food, often traversing long distances and enduring monotonous work to sustain themselves in a consumerist society. This perpetual cycle of consumption perpetuates a debt to appearance, where individuals sacrifice genuine connection and community for the sake of superficial pursuits.

In the face of these daily challenges—long commutes, repetitive work, and compulsive consumption—the design and conditions of cities profoundly influence residents’ well-being and sense of community. Urban injustice, therefore, encompasses the deprivation of time to truly exist, to engage with one’s community, and to care for the urban commons.

In essence, urban justice demands more than just addressing material inequalities; it necessitates creating environments where individuals have the time and opportunity to thrive as active members of a caring and supportive community.


The Enclosure Acts (the laws with which the new money aristocracy expropriated state land from communities) “made Great Britain richer”, in the sense that British speculators accumulated ever larger masses of money.



The study.

The study that was published under the title “The influence of the urban model on civic involvement and public time. A study applied to the commuting population of the Greater Metropolitan Area of San José, Costa Rica”

focused on proposing an instrument for measurement of public time, as a time that people decide to use for the common good, and at the same time test said instrument in measuring the population of the great metropolitan area of San Jose. This measurement was carried out during the participation of architecture students in the LabGov Costa Rica Laboratory, where the group learned to carry out large-scale surveys and interviews, implementing at the same time the use of georeferencing tools (GIS) to record data on maps.

To achieve the objectives of the study, a quantitative methodology employing a descriptive and cross-sectional design was utilized. The investigation focused on analyzing the relationship between urban area types and their impact on public time usage, civic activism, and the Urban Civic Participation Index. Drawing inspiration from Frank et al. (2004), whose research revealed a higher obesity rate in neighborhoods with homogeneous land use, particularly in dispersed city models, this study sought to assess whether a correlation exists between public space utilization, or more broadly, the availability of public time, and residential areas.

The study encompassed a population of 240,000 individuals commuting daily within the Greater Metropolitan Area of San José during 2018, based on data compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank. Through intentional sampling, 572 participants were selected, evenly split between residents of Zone A and Zone B. This sample size exceeded the established minimum requirement of 384 participants, ensuring a representative sample with a margin of error of 4.09%. The research commenced with a characterization of the two urban areas under scrutiny, delineating differences in compactness, land use, and population density.




After examining the data, some intriguing differences came to light between the people living in Zone A and Zone B. Notably, in Zone B characterized by a compact, mixed-use, and medium-density urban layout, inhabitants experienced shorter daily commute times, demonstrated higher utilization of public spaces, and declared being more involved in community activities. Interestingly, despite comparable availability of free time between the two groups, Zone B residents allocated part of their time to civic and community activities associated with public spaces, indicating a distinct lifestyle preference shaped by the urban environment.

While this study doesn’t establish causality, it hints at the impact of commuting times on individuals’ rest and meal hours. Given a standard 9-hour workday, disparities in commute durations between the two groups could result in over an hour difference in rest time, favoring residents of Zone B. Plus, individuals in Zone B displayed a propensity to dedicate their daily resting periods to public-oriented activities, suggesting a preference for community engagement over individual leisure pursuits.

The findings hint that urban models influence the allocation of personal time and lifestyle choices, potentially exacerbating stress and promoting a frenetic lifestyle, as noted by previous researchers. Further investigation in behavioral economics and time-geography could provide deeper insights into this phenomenon, particularly regarding inequalities perpetuated by urban models. Additionally, exploring the values and beliefs guiding residents’ choices in urban environments could shed light on what drives our choices and values in the places we call home.


Addicted to being carried along [the habitual passenger] has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. […]

He comes to believe that political power grows out of the capacity of a transportation system, and in this absence is the result of access to the television screen. […]

He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. – Illich, 1974, p.9


Relationship between the city model and the other study variables.



Dependent variables in the survey.


Daily activities according to the 2017 National Time Use Survey, own elaboration.