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

Notes

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 (http://www.biennalespaziopubblico.it), 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).

References

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: http://mirror.unhabitat.org/list.asp?typeid=18&catid=658 (accessed 21 May 2015)

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