Archives for category: public space

Downtown Parcel Coded

Our new article, published today in Urban Research & Practice, and available on open access….

The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities


In response to policy-makers’ increasing claims to prioritise ‘people’ in smart city development, we explore the publicness of emerging practices across six UK cities: Bristol, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, and Peterborough. Local smart city programmes are analysed as techno-public assemblages invoking variegated modalities of publicness. Our findings challenge the dystopian speculative critiques of the smart city, while nevertheless indicating the dominance of ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘service user’ modes of the public. We highlight the risk of bifurcation within smart city assemblages, such that the ‘civic’ and ‘political’ roles of the public become siloed into less obdurate strands of programmatic activity.

Cowley, R., Joss, S., & Dayot, Y. (2017). The smart city and its publics: insights from across six UK cities. Urban Research & Practice.


Amsterdam Schiphol airport doesn’t currently have its taxi facilities under control.  The fare into town is around €50, so it makes sense for most people to take public transport anyway.  But if, for whatever reason, you need to take a taxi, you have to enter a den of lions.

Apparently, the problem is that the taxi rank is located in ‘public space’ outside the airport (Jan Dellaert Square). The courts have ruled that it is perfectly legal for non-official taxis to ply their trade there.  Three or four taxi companies have licenses to operate from the airport: the others have to hassle people to attract custom.  And the non-official taxis apparently include some entirely unlicensed cars.  There are plenty of stories around of people being ripped off.

The authorities have at least managed to ban hustlers from inside the airport, and have set up an ‘official taxi stand’ outside, with lots of signs, regular (muffled) announcements about not taking an unofficial taxi, and has quite a few stewards outside with special yellow jackets on, directing people to the official stand. However, the unlicensed drivers also now wear the same jackets – there is nothing to stop them doing so. And, even in the official zone, people wearing fake official jackets continue to hassle you.  I decided I would take the bus instead.

Anyway, I thought all this was a good example of how conceptualising public space in overly normative ways may lead to practical problems.  A rather blanket ideal appears to have been legally enshrined, and used to determine what is permitted in this space.  But as a normative concept or ideal, public space – rather like the ideal of free speech – seems to fall apart at the seams when it is applied to reality. For me, public space makes rather more sense as an analytical category – or, more precisely, as a way of thinking about how spaces are differently public, and how this publicness is variously produced in different places and at different times.


Amsterdam, 22 January 2017


HDB flats in Punggol, Singapore

Singapore seems like an interesting place to study the various ways in which people manage to negotiate differences, and rub along together in everyday life. It promotes itself as a harmonious multicultural society.  Here, as published by the national Department of Statistics, are some demographic data from 2015 (rounded to the nearest per cent). Quite a mix:

Total population: 

  • 5,535m (of whom just under 30% are foreigners working, studying or living in Singapore without permanent residency status)
  • NB: the figures below relate to citizens and permanent residents only


  • Chinese 74%
  • Malay 13%
  • Indian 9%
  • Other 3%

Language most often spoken at home:

  • English 32%
  • Mandarin 36%
  • Chinese Dialects 14%
  • Malay 12%
  • Tamil 3%
  • Others 2%


  • Buddhism: 43%
  • Taoism / Chinese traditional beliefs: 9%
  • Islam: 15%
  • Christianity: 15%
  • Hinduism: 4%
  • Other religions: 1%
  • No religion: 15%

Over 80% of the population live in flats built by the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the national public housing authority. New flats are sold at subsidised prices, with priority given to first-time buyers, but can be sold later on the open market. HDB has been steadily building flats since 1960. (By the way, can we do that too please?)

What particularly interests me is that the government sets ethnic quotas on who can buy these flats, specifically to avoid any groups being concentrated in particular places (as was once the case in Singapore).  These quotas are the same across the whole island, updated monthly, and are set at both block and neighbourhood level.  There are also complex rules about who you can sell your flat to.  The basic principle is that, once a block or neighbourhood has reached the maximum proportion of a particular ethnic group, no sale is allowed which will increase that proportion (Wong, 2013).  Of course, people will self-segregate in all sorts of ways, as they do everywhere, and this will no doubt help reproduce social inequalities of different kinds.  And yet, to some extent, the occurrence of everyday encounters with different cultural groups, in semi-public and public spaces, is thus effectively mandated by the state.

How, then, do Singaporeans go about negotiating these differences, so as to coexist peacefully in these spaces? Junjia Ye (2016) explains that the principle of Gui ju holds the answer. In part, this describes a generally accepted set of behavioural norms – and the state has led publicity campaigns to prescribe “proper codes of conduct in Singapore’s public spaces” (p.92).

She also describes Gui Ju as allowing for social relations to be characterised by ‘civility’.  Civility, as understood in the West, describes the enactment of ‘tolerance’: rather than reflecting an easy-going attitude towards a given other, tolerance indicates the repression of dislike or disapproval (Hancock & Matthews, 2001; Bannister and Kearns, 2013). If we like or approve of a person, there is no need to ‘tolerate’ them.  And yet there are occasions when the limits of our tolerance – which need not be thought of as singular or fixed – are overstepped, and we react with anger.  Similarly, Ye suggests that the social codes of Gui ju may often be transgressed by unsocialised migrant workers (who, as mentioned earlier, make up almost a third of the population).  Fortunately, Gui ju also includes ways of dealing in a civil manner with these transgressions: in the politest way possible, the transgressors are informed that their behaviour is problematic.

At this stage, I have several thoughts and questions:

  • I am wary of reading Asian public behaviour as ‘civil’. At first sight, Singaporeans, Koreans and the Japanese for example appear to behave – to my western eyes – in a remarkably civil way.  And yet civility, as an English language concept, is very closely tied up with the ideal of the autonomous liberal subject, as Frank Furedi (2012) points out.  Something like Gui ju no doubt has entirely different roots – which are probably related to the more collectivist orientation of Confucianism (although I’m out of my depth at this stage)
  • In her article, Ye points out that Gui ju simultaneously allows for differences to be overcome, but also itself creates a “dominant ordering of space” which reinforces a “divide between migrants and locals by disciplining how people ought to behave” (p.97). Civility, similarly, has an ambiguous status: it may bridge differences but its limits also construct an inside and an outside. Civility may be a less homogeneous and more flexible principle than Gui ju, but I’m not sure whether we should think of either as ‘meta-codes’ for behaviour, or as straightforward normative delimiters of what behaviours are deemed acceptable
  • Reports of a rise in xenophobic attacks in the UK, following the Brexit referendum, indicate that the experience has – perhaps temporarily – marked a breakdown of civility, in the sense that the attackers have not felt obliged to suppress their dislike of the ‘other’. It is interesting that this has been theorised as being enabled by the signals given by the politicians (ie state actors) campaigning for the UK to leave Europe.  These recent events, like Singapore’s housing quotas and public education campaigns, would suggest that the state does have an important role to play in allowing different types of people to live together peacefully. Trite though that conclusion might sound, and however we may want to problematise the ‘peace’ which results, or the motivations behind its enforcement or facilitation, I can’t see that there’s much wrong in reminding ourselves of it.


9 July 2016, Singapore



Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13): 2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2): 30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Wong, M. (2013). Estimating Ethnic Preferences Using Ethnic Housing Quotas in Singapore. The Review of Economic Studies, 80(3): 1178–1214.

Ye, J. (2016). Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规矩) in Singapore. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(1): 91–103.

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Walking round the Ducal Palace in Urbino today, I was trying to think about how grandiose buildings more generally make me feel.

This one was built in the fifteenth century. From the outside: massive, silent walls. On the inside: high ceilings; great hall after great hall; floral embellishments; grand decorated fireplaces; latticed windows; unexplained symbols and coats of arms; sweeping staircases; geometric elegance.

The public face of the Duke's Palace

The public face of the Duke’s Palace

Sometimes, the architecture of power positions you as impotent; sometimes, as vulgar. This building does both. And yet, in being positioned in relation to the building, you are co-opted into its power structure. However aware you may be of the misery and bloodshed on which it was built, you can’t help feeling a grudging respect for its magnificence. It becomes hard to imagine that the building merely legitimates power. Surely, you think, it has a certain beauty, a certain significance, in excess of all that. But does it?

There seems to be little in the external public face of Urbino as a whole that hasn’t been determined from on high. The urban fabric is only coherent and normalising. I have had a marvellous four days here in any case, attending the RC-21 conference The Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality. I took part in a panel about public space – you can read about that, and download my paper, here. And, if you’re interested, I can report that, in terms of my paper, Urbino seems to display an exclusively ‘civic’ modality of publicness.

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica, Urbino

29 August 2015, Urbino

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)

%d bloggers like this: