The Space of the (Re)Public

In October 2011 a group of around 2000–3000 protesters gathered around Paternoster Square in London, shrouded in the shadow cast by St Paul’s Cathedral, to occupy the space around the London Stock Exchange in protest at the gross inequalities of wealth that this institution represents. However, what became known as the Occupy London movement unable to access the square due to the intervention of police and private security personnel. In fact, the owners of Paternoster Square, Mitsubishi Estate Co., had swiftly sought a high-court injunction refusing access to its land, and the protestors were forced to retreat to the church grounds next door. Despite the failure to occupy Paternoster Square, they did inadvertently open up a different debate: what is the impact of the privatisation of urban space, and how does this affect the political and social dimensions attributable to that space?

The question is not easily resolved by an appeal to an ideal of the city as res publica, a term that conjures up images of Periclean Athens and Platonic models of the ‘just’ polis. Plato’s Republic has suffered the fate of imperfect translation into Latinate languages, and res publica or ‘public thing’ rather unevenly grasps the sense of concern for the systems of governance embodied in the Greek title of Plato’s famous dialogue, Politeia. The ‘thing’ in question is not a physical urban space, but the just administration of the city as a totality. Nevertheless, the interplay between the physical geography of urban spaces and ideals of justice was both exemplified and made concrete through the centrality of the agora in Greek political life. As Rousseau observed over 2,000 years later, ‘houses make a town, but citizens a city’; attention to the relation of urban geography to social and political praxis has only been further accentuated in the modern capitalist world of globalised neo-liberal economies aiming at the ‘efficient’ planning and use of public spaces. Our question should be: In an increasingly urbanised world, where are the spaces of our democracies, where can politics take place, who has the right to occupy these spaces and who is excluded from them?

Privately owned public spaces (POPS) are a relatively modern phenomena, in juridical terms. Such hybrid spaces first emerged in the 1960s in New York, and have come increasingly to dominate urban landscapes in Europe, Asia and South America. Alongside the political and legal dilemmas that these spaces pose, they also reveal problems concerning the everyday use of public space, that is, what should public space be used for? Private ownership of public space should be read in two ways: legal and social. The aesthetic quality of the spaces reflects how private interests attempt to take ownership of the public use of space itself. They tend to divide into two categories: (1) barren squares and plazas discouraging public congregation; and (2) centres of commercial activity, encouraging only the consumption of commodities and the valorisation of exchange value. The presence of private security firms only serves to highlight how access to and the use of urban space is increasingly managed and overdetermined by private interests. On the other hand, it would be fruitless to idealise a not-so-distant past when public space was brought under state ownership. Rather, we should remain critical of the historical use of public space in cities, which far from entailing an axiomatic open political space of free debate and popular sovereignty actually encompasses a history of exclusions from public spaces based on criteria including, but not limited to, race, gender, sexuality and class.

In the face of this wave of privatisation of the urban landscape, planners and urbanists are renewing interests in radical strategies for reclaiming the city. This edition highlights reappropriation of junk-spaces and détournement, as two examples of how this struggle against private developers is being fought. Spilios Iliopoulos and Michaela Litsardaki present a study on the potential for ‘pocket parks’ to transform the decaying urban landscape of Thessaloniki, Greece, through community based initiatives. The use of these pocket parks is aimed at fostering community spirit through the creation of an inclusive space for neighbourhood festivals to occur. Notions of citizen led praxis as a strategic form of resistance to neo-liberal privatisation of urban development is a recurring motif in this edition. Elisa Privitera’s research into the praxis of ‘deutero-labs’ in the San Berillo neighbourhood of Catania, Italy, reveals how local tactics for rebuilding the urban landscape can result in the rehabilitation of urban space though cooperation between community groups and local government. Eliki-Athanasia Diamantouli and Athina Fousteri explore how a participatory approach for the creation of play spaces in the city of Larissa, Greece, has involved children in the early stages of the design process. A central concept featuring in both of these articles is the ‘right to the city’, which forms a central theme in Tony Maniscalco’s critical appraisal of the ‘Diller Island’ redevelopment of New York’s Pier 55. Patrick Chan and Camilla Lade tell the tale of how the activation of neglected spaces — a move that ultimately serves the real estate industry — can lead to the re-territorialisation of these spaces, reappropriating the space, and in turn the quarter, for new users and thus taking it away from the existing community. Any eventual conclusions about the possible ‘public’ essence of this development are linked intimately to questions of who will be permitted access to this site, on what conditions and for what purpose. Can the diverse experience of the commons point towards a new ‘public-ness’? Melissa Harrison reflects on the potential of the commons to reappropriate a ‘public’ whose sense of public life, in all its plurality and diversity, has been obfuscated by the market-state dichotomy.

From a design-led perspective, a model for a ‘rainwater commons’ is proposed by Stephanie Newcomb for Los Angeles, USA — an interconnected modular infrastructure, stretching along the interstitial and the in-between spaces and private/public borders. Sonja Jankov’s photography work documents a Total Palace: a typology of public space familiar to many former socialist countries, places that aimed to offer “everything to everyone”, concentrating activities and uses for the public life of their citizens. In today’s Athens, Christina Petkopoulou introduces us to the Athens Report, a collective archive of the lived experience of protest and resistance along the spaces of the trolley bus route no. 11.

The legacy of Henri Lefebvre’s seminal essay Le droit à la ville, can be felt throughout this issue, bringing into focus the central question of the role of the planner in urban development. However, the right to the city would be misrepresented if understood in a purely juridical sense. Interpretations of this concept, by e.g. international agencies such as UNESCO and UN-Habitat, have served largely to legitimise a depoliticised version of the principle by national governments who would otherwise be reluctant to encourage any form of political struggle that might weaken the monopoly of national citizenship. Recent interventions by critical urban theorists such as David Harvey, Neil Brenner and Peter Marcuse strive to reinvigorate the political dimension of the right to the city, simultaneously resisting its dilution within global discourses on international development.

Lefebvre’s concept of a right must be affirmed as an objective to be obtained through sustained political action and social praxis. A right is never given, but must be taken: ‘between equal rights, force decides’. Lefebvre’s challenge is to remake urban space through a political force capable of transforming social relations and overthrowing the lapidifying neo-liberal hegemony. And while the dialectical content of Lefebvre’s historical vision for urban revolution remains problematic, his understanding of the relation between the production of space and socioeconomic transformation is once more becoming highly relevant. This relation must be put into the foreground when resisting the strategies of enclosure, segregation and apartheid.

The acceleration of urbanisation can be felt most acutely in the Global South, where the rapid growth of marginal urban communities in slums, townships and refugee camps accounts for one in three of all city dwellers in the region, a figure which is only destined to increase as more and more rural inhabitants flock to the cities in search of work. In these liminal urban zones, informality and temporariness become important factors for analysis, and are reflected in both the economies of these places and the built physical environment itself. The impact of informality upon social reproduction in these liminal urban spaces is felt perhaps best summed up in the language of biopolitics as the reproduction of ‘bare life’. In places of such divestment of social and political agency for the inhabitants, it is important to highlight subaltern forms of resistance that aim to restore meaning to people’s lives as more than a mere struggle for survival. Experimentation in emerging forms of political action can found in the work of shack dwellers’ organisations, e.g. Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and Cape Town, which seek to establish public access to basic amenities (water, electricity, sanitation, etc.) through horizontal forms of democratic activism. Similarly, urban theory must strive to reimagine concepts like the right to the city in light of the ‘southern turn’, where traditional Western conceptions of public space and the urban in general are possibly no longer applicable and practicable.

If the Global South presents a specific problematic of urbanisation resulting in forms of ‘creeping apartheid’ in the division of urban space, changes to the urban fabric (socioeconomic, deindustrialisation, immigration, demographic shifts) in the North and West pose a different set of problems requiring practical and theoretical responses. While Rem Koolhaas and Hernando do Soto may be led to admire the epigenetic capacities of slums to take shape as radical forms of unplanned urban space, the bureaucratic technocracies of the ‘developed’ world have been unable to rid themselves of the metropolitan imaginaries of conceptually homogenous urban spaces. Nevertheless, neo-liberal interventions in urban planning and advocacy make use of this fact by simultaneously promoting the appearance of ideal metropolitan space, whilst undermining it through a variety of strategies including privatisation of public space, gentrification, reducing access to housing, deregulation of the rental market, and reduction in essential public services through austerity policies. These strategies add up to create an alienating vision for the 21 st century ‘global city’ where urban space is fragmented not only in both the legal and socioeconomic senses, but also phenomenologically. As such, the epistemology of the ‘global city’ resembles a disorientating network of separate zones wherein different rights apply to different socioeconomic classes.

As an aside, disparities in access to digital space based on categories of urban exclusion/inclusion is becoming well-known, as is the increasing regulation of this space as a public domain. Revelations about the role of social media and the presence of private enterprises such as Cambridge Analytica only serve to highlight the encroachment of private and political interests into the digital commons.

Re-conquering public space begins with its reconceptualisation – far beyond the generally open and accessible, much more than the opposite of private, no less than an amplifier of the voices of the unheard and the silenced – as there, where we can expand the room for manoeuvre for transformative change towards the essence of the Politeia, a city that is just. The challenge ahead for us then, is not only to resist the loss of the public but further to reclaim the agency of public space to shape the just city of today in a context of rising inequality, transience, and diversity. It is here where the experiences of the urban commons remind us of the (re)public as a commonwealth – public space as a mode of operation, a ‘commoning’, that rejects the dominant notions of ownership, property, commodification, established hierarchies, and experiments with spontaneous appropriation, horizontal participatory governance, shared resources, and the recognition and empowerment of the vulnerable and the excluded. A public space whose lived experience is a learning that impacts and alters our being in the city, our civic identity, the ways we relate to one another; a space that spreads the qualities of public-ness far beyond its own borders.

If the society of our century is to be the urban society then the revolutionary task for urbanism lies in experimenting with forms of social praxis for the production of urban space for urban citizens. The (re)public means re-imagining the city as public oeuvre. It involves the creation of public spaces that are simultaneously produced by and productive of emancipatory political action. To achieve this, a new concept of urban citizenship needs to be developed which exceeds the national framework of legal citizenship grounded in jus soli and jus sanguinis. Neither should urban citizenship be limited to a heuristic capacity in urban development and planning discourse. Instead, the notion of an urban citizen should challenge the material and ideological assumptions of nation-state legal and political rhetoric by seeking to include the marginalised, the refugee, the informal migrant worker, the slum dweller, within the production of urban space. The construction of cities must become the production of material and ideological emancipation through reclaiming the public essence of the city as a radically open space.

Cover image: Projections of an alternative urban collective lifestyle by the Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative. Source: The Neighborhood of Alexandrou Svolou facebook page.

Volume 3, No. 1 February 2020