Why Public Space is Overrated (and probably dead)

I believe that we, as members of modern, mostly urban and cosmopolitan societies, have never had so many debates over public space before. I’ve dealt with urban planners and  PhD candidates (as an urban studies PhD student myself) for a little while, and there is one obsession among city thinkers: the very meaning of public space. It turns out there is no easy definition for this concept, as there isn’t one either for “space”, “place” or this terrible word we use excessively: “identity”. We made up these concepts and have struggled since to prove and explain them, but it feels like we can’t reach any satisfactory answer.

The sociologist will tell you that: “public space is a never neutral open space where different groups with various degree of power interact, leading to power games, dominant groups taking over dominated ones, pushed away”. The geographer will probably state that “public space  is, by opposition of the private space, a space where people flow, meet and interact, making up patterns of mobility and culture hybridization, leading to the making of a unique place“. I bet a historian would go for “a highly symbolic space where societies create their own future by expressing collective ideologies, leading most of the time to historical event/conflict that shape people’ identities and nations’ history”. An architect  would probably claim that public space needs to be shaped by extraordinary talented artists to make inhabitants happy, benches, grass and trees being on the top of the human needs pyramid (I’m joking of course!) (Or not)(You might want to check that one to make sure). The political analyst will probably win the debate by concluding that “public space are where people collectively maintain and perpetuate the polis – meaning both “city” (civitas) and “state” (as in antique Greece, the city and the state were merged into one political and geographical entity) – which is the community of free citizens who choose to live together and are willing to make decisions collectively”.

All of them will inevitably connect the concept of public space with the notion of citizenship and what it means to be a citizen in one country, one city, or one neighborhood. There is no public space where there is no group, no will to “live together” and to share a portion of common space  based on  a tacit agreement that relies on a wider system (the state and its institutions). Public space and politics are intimately connected for that very reason: once there is a community of people living together at the same place, collective decisions need to be made (resource management, spending priorities, etc.). When there is a state of chaos where individuals fight for their own good only (look no further than Walking Dead or Black Friday at the mall), when there are no laws and no enforcement system anymore, private and public limits blow up. Everywhere and everything becomes “stealable” by anyone: the law of the strongest is the only regulation.

In fact, the definition of  public space depends on the political system above it: in a democratic state, the streets and plazas are where people can debate, express themselves, protest, claim their interests and push the limits of the system (in theory). In a dictatorship, there are no such thing as free citizens. There are no citizens. Just like in North Korea still today, people are not allowed to circulate when and where they want. They are not allowed to stop, gather, talk, take pictures, stroll about or look around. In those conditions, even if there are streets (empty streets most of the time), huge plazas and wide sidewalks, there is no real public space. The government is everywhere and watching everybody’s moves, so “private” space does not really exist either. We could say the same about downtown London, which is under surveillance 24/7 by city cameras.

As we are living in a fast-changing global world-system, based on the nation-state/metropolis duo, it make sense to wonder about what public space has become and how to make sure we plan for its use in the best way possible to maintain the community. If we can’t really tell what public space is, let’s start by reviewing what it is not:

  • Is it where people can do whatever they want? Certainly not. A community means rules. We are all “controlled” in a way when we are in a public park, on a street, even in a back alley. Some things are tolerated, others are valorised (like a cool dancer or a happy juggler), while some are totally prohibited (being violent, destroying property, going around naked, etc.). More insidious is the tacit control that makes you and I walk straight, not look around too much, usually curb any social enthusiasm and avoid talking spontaneously to strangers, sit on a specific bench (and never sit on others), avoid talking too loud or making broad gestures. Public space means no privacy: even if there are no laws forbidding cartwheels on a public lawn, most people will feel watched and will control their impulses, waiting to be in a more “private” place to become spontaneous again.
  • Is it where people can debate, protest and make decisions about the community? Well… not really. Sure, you can legally protest in most city streets of the world. You can gather with your friends to chat about the fascinating flowering strategy happening downtown attributed to a brilliant new architect. You “can” put your ghetto blaster on the floor, then dance to it. You “can” play music, put a hat on the pavement and wait for donations while debating. Regarding the actual power you and I have, as citizens, in what is called public space in modern cities, it appears to be extremely weak. If you are a talented tagger, you’ll be paid by the very same city that chased you and put you in jail a few years back. For regular people, the best hope is to get on the news for some spectacular protest or police clash. There are no public assemblies with legitimate power happening in “public space” anymore (like it was in ancient Greece, the civilization every intellectual claims to be obsessed about – for that matter).
  • Is it where people can socialize and meet others, while getting out of their “private” sphere? It could be. It should be. But it’s not really. Most of the time, big city public spaces turn out to be extended private spheres or windows of the best city attractions (like it is ok to lie on the grass staring at the Eiffel Tower, but not to drink and start singing too loudly). Groups of people usually sit apart and don’t really mix, but may ask for a lighter. It takes a party with music/alcohol/explicit permission to shout and laugh (because everyone else is doing so) to push people toward each other. So, yes, theoretically we could take the first steps and talk to people we don’t know, but it looks like it remains an exception for most of us. Why is that so? We might live in a society of mistrust, but most public spaces are not really designed for this. Wide open spaces expose people to each other, and we have known for centuries that visual exposure (feeling watched or too visible) discourages social initiative instead of encouraging it.

So what is left?

Not much. Today’s public spaces are mostly clean, empty plazas designed by world-class planners (architects mostly – not sociologists, geographers, historians or political analysts), caring more about global city competition than about how locals actually feel about them in their own city. I’ve heard it from so many people, living in France (Nîmes, Montpellier, Paris), Canada (Montréal, Québec, Calgary), New Zealand, South Africa or Italy: “we don’t feel included, consulted and even considered by the city about any planning related decision”, “the projects did not respect the city’s style and heritage”, “they destroyed a place that was very important for locals but now it has been taken over by tourists”… City councillors race for subventions and international prestige, but it seems they can’t be bothered to actually care about the only scale that matters: “here and now” (the people who voted for them, for that matter too).

Why is public space probably dead? I am still not convinced it ever existed, despite the ridiculous number of papers (by prestigious planners) I had to read about it during my doctoral studies. To me, the only thinker who succeeded in explaining clearly that turn (between an actual political space to support and make a community to a modern architecture global competition completely detached from local realities) is Hannah Arendt. Mrs Arendt reached to theorize the shift from a totalitarian system (Hitler’s Nazism) to a productive capitalism. The new ideology is money, and it comes with the obsession for productivity, profitability and competition. I bet you can feel it too when you walk down the street or cross a plaza in a big city. People in public areas don’t mix. Sometimes they stare. Sometimes they don’t care and do funny things. Anyway, there is no spontaneous dynamic to meet, discuss or feel a sense of community. The only law that prevails is the one of productivity: let’s all ignore each other because we have to run for our money and have no time to discuss things we can’t change anyway.

I never felt like I belonged in an urban public space. I never felt like I could go talk to those people sitting on a bench. I never felt free to do or say whatever I wanted. I never felt supported just by standing among my fellow humans on the grass of Central Park. Who goes to the park with no book, no kid, no dog, to discuss politics with strangers and make sure their voice is heard by the authorities?

We are being blamed for watching TV a lot, not going out enough. We are encouraged by advertising to travel extensively, by motivational quotes to step up and speak, to think critically and express ourselves… Well, building a community of dedicated, involved and trustful people takes a political context that everyone can trust. It takes the freedom of movement, speech and doing cartwheels on the public lawn. Not forbidding things is not the same as encouraging them. It is not enough to establish trust and make people feel like actual citizens who matter, whose voices matter. The more cities and places compete with one another on the global chessboard, the less locals will matter in urban planners’ decisions. In the end, the more free we believe we are (because we can, theoretically, go anywhere and do whatever we want, right? The big city make us free), the less actual freedom we have to get closer to each other. The saddest part of this to me is that people whose jobs are to solve that question (the city planners and politicians) are trying to fix the social emptiness of our productive system by offering us flowers and benches.


Millions of dollars of flowers and benches.

But that’s ok. Keep studying the Chicago School and contemporary architecture, guys; that is helpful. It took me two years of the fierce “urban studies” Phd cursus to get to the question that made me quit.

Are we even citizens anymore? Do we have the power to define what being a citizen should be?