Archives for the month of: May, 2014

Biennale Spazzio Pubblico 2015 Carta dello Spazio Pubblico

A colleague from Italy recently sent me a ‘Charter of Public Space’.1 This has been prepared as a contribution to the third Conference of the United Nations on Human Settlements, which will be held in 2016.  Relatedly, I noticed that in 2011 UN-Habitat adopted a resolution on ‘sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces’.  I can’t help but like these aspirations. The idea of having a commonly, globally agreed set of principles to guide policies and practices around public space, along with official acknowledgement of its importance, is very attractive. At the same time, however, I’m not sure that its conceptual foundation is a solid one.

The case for identifying public space as a collective good to which urban citizens have something approaching a human right seems clear enough at first glance.  Its justification typically relies on the contention that our previously ‘public’ spaces are being increasingly ‘privatised’. This, in turn, is understood as being detrimental to various things that it is difficult to dislike: social equity, social cohesion, quality of life, the quality of the democratic process, and so on.  The privatisation of the city is, in short, seemingly at odds with the so-called ‘right to the city’.

But things are not so simple.  What precisely is this ‘publicness’ which is being undermined?  The ‘public’ is a slippery pit of a concept, filled with wriggling, overlapping tendencies; its contents and shape change depending on the perspective from which it is viewed.  In the absence of a firm definition, the central claim, that the ‘public’ is being usurped by the ‘private’ – begins to look rather tautological; each term has no meaning beyond that of its opposition to the other.  If, alternatively, our use of the adjective ‘public’ relies on a particular criterion – for example, that of legal ownership – then it becomes unclear why we need to use the word ‘public’ at all.2

One of the reasons for the confusion is that the term is archaeologically layered. Its current everyday uses retain vestiges of its various meanings since antiquity (Habermas, 1989); they hang around in language as fossilised referents to social structures quite unlike those of today. In its newer theorisations, it reflects at least a postmodern sensibility, and possibly even the actual slow dissolution of liberal statehood: we now talk about multiple, fragmented publics, pragmatic emergent publics, and ‘assemblages’ of publicness where the boundaries between the human and the non-human are blurred.

Alongside its temporal variety, though, I also want to know more about how well the word ‘public’ travels across space.  How do its various meanings map onto cognate words in non-European languages? Which of its conceptualisations remain analytically or normatively useful in societies far removed from the heartlands of liberal democracy? These questions have obvious significance for an attempt to introduce a global charter of public space.  It would seem problematic if, as Hogan et al. (2012) suggest, talk of the privatisation of urban space sometimes presumes a publicness which didn’t previously exist.

Next month, anyway, I’ll be in Korea – and this is one of things I’ll be thinking about while I’m there. If any Korean speakers are reading this, I would value any thoughts you have.

22 May 2014, London


1 Thank you to Vittorio Pagliaro, of the Second University of Naples, for sending me the Charter of Public Space.  I imagine this is available from the website of the Biennale di Spazio Publico (, but this was undergoing maintenance at the time of writing.  If anybody wants a pdf in English, just let me know.

2 Indicatively of the lack of agreement over the concept, it has been argued that ownership is at best a peripheral dimension of publicness (Parkinson, 2012).


Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hogan, T., Bunnell, T., Pow, C.-P., Permanasari, E. & Morshidi, S. (2012). Asian urbanisms and the privatization of cities. Cities, 29:59–63.

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UN-Habitat (2011). Draft resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces. HSP/GC/23/CRP.4/Rev.1. Available from: (accessed 21 May 2015)

What has become of the eco-city


This poster was made for a talk that I did last week. The image I chose for it shows a new town centre which is being constructed in Gwanggyo, a municipality to the south of Seoul. The ‘vertical green spaces’ of its ‘termite-like’ buildings are designed to improve natural ventilation and reduce energy and water consumption. You can find out more about the development here if you like.  But I want to think about the image itself.

First of all, of course, we cannot actually see Gwanggyo town centre above – this is an architect’s representation of Gwanggyo town centre. As such, it has a strange status: simultaneously descriptive of an imaginary future, and yet highly constrained by the complexities of the here-and-now. One foot in the world of dreams; one in the real world.

At the very edge of this representation, the ‘real city’ makes an interesting appearance. Its jumbled messiness contrasts starkly with the bounded spatial order of the new imaginary city.  If the old city beyond the boundary evokes the unpredictability of social processes, the new city is static: a fixed ‘plan’ which will guide particular actions. It conjures up a space necessarily stripped of temporality.

Should we therefore understand it as utopian? I’m not so sure. Confusingly, utopianism seems to have become a term of abuse, aligned with escapism at best, and disastrous irresponsibility at worst; those in pursuit of utopia – including believers in the ‘free market’ – seem quickest to make such accusations. But could it be, as Ernst Bloch (1986)* argued, that all of our daydreams and aspirations are essentially utopian?  That our dreams and hopes allow us to negotiate the future even if they don’t actually describe it? Utopianism is not, in this sense, politically problematic (or problematically apolitical), so much as generatively ‘pre-political’.  It gives rise to the political contestation out of which plans are made, and “reaches its end as soon as it becomes institutionalised” (Ganjavie, 2013:6).

The architect’s drawing, then, is no longer fully utopian, nor yet ‘applied’ in the real world. It marks the representational outcome of a pragmatic process of negotiation between different pre-political visions and the materially entangled social processes of the real world. The accusation of utopianism would mark a failure to understand that:

The utopic is not a normative prescription, blueprint, or master plan, but rather a productive force

(Gunder & Hillier, 2007:477).

I rather think we need plans in the world. Plans take the form of representations, and I’m unconvinced that non-representational thinking can itself give us a framework for action. Representations are shaped by utopianism, but are not themselves utopian. And utopianism is alive and well; it seems to be part of the human condition, and infuses our everyday individual and collective lives just as much as it ever has done in the past.

13 May 2014, London



Bloch, E. (1986). The Principle of Hope. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ganjavie, A. (2013). On the future of urban design: Fabricating the future through Bloch’s utopians. Planning Theory:1473095213513256.

Gunder, M. & Hillier, J. (2007). Planning as urban therapeutic. Environment and Planning A, 39(2):467 – 486.



Image used on poster with permission of MVRDV architects (Holland).

* I really should get round to reading this one day, but its three-volumedness acts a deterrent.

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