At the end of October I submitted the first piece of assessed work for my Cities and Cultures MA course. The task was part of my Cities, Space and Power module, and required us to define one of three key terms that we had talked about so far in our seminars and reading: public, public sphere or public space.
As the concept that formed the foundation of my approach to my previous work on the regulation of busking, and thus the one that I had the best grasp of, I chose to define public space.
Doing a definition was a thought-provoking exercise because rather than making arguments about a preconceived or typical understanding of the concept of public space, I needed to interrogate the concept itself. What does it mean to call a space ‘public’ in the first place? Where do these meanings and associations originate from? And what different directions and interpretations have since arisen to create what we understand as public space today?
With a 1,000-word limit, this wasn’t a typical dictionary definition in that there was scope to expand the discussion of public space beyond a superficial description of how the concept is typically understood.
Before delving too far into different histories and theories of public space, though, I wanted to start my definition broadly so that it immediately recognised how there are multiple ways of approaching what is an inherently complex concept.
After a lot of thinking, I filtered these different perspectives down into three main categories:
- ‘Formal’ approaches – understanding public space as a legally defined ‘public property’, which is held and managed by governments on behalf of their people.
- ‘Functional’ approaches – the notion that public spaces are functionally open for access and use by a wide, generalised population.
- ‘Ideological’ approaches – the political and philosophical associations that public space evokes, typically those of democracy and political participation.
In Western thought, we often understand these approaches to public space as opposites to ‘private space’ – those spaces that are owned by specific individuals/groups who have the legal right to exclude others from access and use. But, in keeping with the theme of complexity and ambiguity, the division between public and private space isn’t always a simple one to make. One example of this is the shopping mall, which despite being privately owned is open to a much wider population than the private space of the home. But there are in fact many ambiguous or ‘semi-public’ spaces such as schools/universities, airports and police stations that seem to fulfil some characteristics of publicness and not others.
As you can start to see, public space eludes precise definition, and it wouldn’t be hard to write a great deal more than 1,000 words on the topic if you explore it in all its depth. But the word limit encouraged me to think about what would be the most relevant aspects of the public space concept to include in the main body of the definition. What are the most significant or fundamental ideas that have contributed to how we understand public space in geography today?
Public space and democratic politics
At the centre of both popular and academic discussion of public space for decades, the vision of public space as a site of democracy and sociability between citizens is an important one to consider. Also known as the ‘republican’ tradition of public space, this line of thought sees the value of public spaces in their potential to host and provoke political discussion and representation for people from all social backgrounds, thanks to how they are relatively open for use and access.
Jurgen Habermas, a social theorist, argued that public spaces have these democratic qualities because they are based upon certain norms: specifically, the idea that discussion between people in public is rational, and that participants are treated as equals, irrespective of social standing. Habermas traces the origin of these norms back to the 18th-century British coffeehouse, which he claims was the first space where people outside the ruling classes regularly came together to collectively talk about political issues – where being in public could also mean having a political say that was as valid as any other.
But for humanist thinkers, public space shouldn’t be considered as a space where differences between social groups are erased, and people become a unified, equal ‘public’. Instead, public spaces are spaces where these social differences become more visible, as they allow us to encounter people from different backgrounds. From this perspective, public spaces have democratic potential because they allow people from diverse social groups to represent themselves and be seen, even if they are disempowered within society generally.
Overall, though, for all those who associate public space with democratic political participation, it is the possibility of openly interacting with different people that makes public space a site of political importance, and also gives it democratic potential.
The ‘end’ of public space
For many commentators, however, public space in the last few decades has become increasingly hostile to these kinds of open, sociable encounters. Through a trend of ‘privatisation’, it is argued that public space is becoming less ‘open’ to different uses and groups of people, and is instead increasingly owned, managed and regulated by private companies. Examples of this include the growth in number of indoor shopping centres, gated communities and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
Geographers Neil Smith and Don Mitchell have claimed that this trend is a symptom of capitalist logic in an era of globalisation. Since capital has become more mobile, city authorities feel they must compete to attract investment and stay relevant on the global stage. By involving private companies in the organisation of urban space, and regulating public space to remove signs of disorder while promoting cleanliness and comfort, authorities aim to create the best possible conditions for commercial activity. The flipside of this, though, has meant that certain groups of people and certain uses of public space are often no longer welcome. The classic example is homeless people, who are largely unable to participate in the commercial life of cities, and whose uses of the space for sleeping, urinating and defecating, for example, define them as a ‘disorderly presence’.
Are these regulations an example of the traditions of freedom in public space being eroded, therefore signally a growing ‘impurity’ or even ‘end’ of public space? This is certainly what some accounts have argued.
The situation isn’t necessarily as bleak as this, however. There are lots of examples today where the creative and collective potential of public space is being explored. Community gardening and experimental artwork are two examples of this. But it is also important to be wary of the common assumption in the ‘end of public space’ arguments that public space was once ‘pure’ or ‘free’, and now we are in an inevitable process of decline. Public space has never been free. Marginalised groups within society have struggled for access to public space throughout history, and even written statutes regulating public space have existed for centuries.
So how might we think of public space beyond an ideal of democratic politics and a narrative of decline?
One way to do this is to consider how public spaces are continually changing rather than reaching some kind of homogenised endpoint, both in terms of their physical environment, and its less tangible elements such as the memories and emotions that we associate with different spaces.
Public space isn’t only made up of human interactions. Non-human things such as paving slabs, regulations, bollards and lighting all play important parts in making public space what it is. Moreover, these different conditions will vary significantly in different places and at different times of day. For example, on a sunny Saturday in a UK high street, public space is likely to be lively and bustling. Yet a suburban underpass in the middle of the night will probably be deserted, and potentially feel dangerous.
As this last point suggests, the kinds of encounters that people have in public space also don’t always conform to the republican ideals of equality and respect of difference. Again, this depends on context. In certain places and at certain times, for example, women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ individuals can be more likely to be victims of abuse and discrimination.
Ultimately, then, we can say that public space is not a level playing field. Instead, public spaces are sites that are continually produced and whose conditions will therefore vary according to the particular situation.
Hopefully what has become clear from this discussion of public space is that it isn’t a simple concept!
Although there are many competing ways that geographers have attempted to understand it, one thing that nearly all will agree on is that public space is inherently political. It is a space not only where diverse people encounter each other, but also where the tensions between openness/freedom and ownership/governance become clear.
For me, this is why public space is such an interesting topic to study. It is where some of the fundamental boundaries within society are negotiated, and yet at the same time it is very important for the lives of individual people too. While this importance may be more evident for people such as buskers and the homeless who depend on public space for their livelihood, we all use public space in some way – whether that is for walking to walk, shopping, playing sport, or finding a quiet spot to eat your lunch.
Simply put, public space matters for all of us.