Archives for category: publics

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.

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)

Final poster




John Law (Professor of Sociology, Open University): Congregating Publics: GDP and its Others


Regan Koch (Department of Geography, University College, London): Justifications of public and private: Notes from the not-quite-public spaces of underground restaurants

Manuela Kölke (independent researcher): Ontological registers as the medium of convergence between political theory and spatial disciplines

Antonia Layard (University of Bristol Law School): The Legal Production of Public Space (or not)

Nikolai Roskamm (Institut für Stadt- und Regionalplanung, TU Berlin, Germany): The in-between of public space: Sitting on the fence with Hannah Arendt


Clive Barnett (Professor of Geography and Social Theory, University of Exeter): Theorising Emergent Publics


Nick Mahony and Hilde C. Stephansen (Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, The Open University): What’s at stake in Participation Now? Exploring emergent configurations of ‘the public’ in contemporary public participation

Helen Pallett (Science, Society & Sustainability group, University of East Anglia): Producing the publics of UK science policy: public dialogue as a technology for representing, knowing and constructing publics

Yvonne Rydin and Lucy Natarajan (Bartlett School of Planning, University College, London): Materialising public participation: community consultation within spatial planning for North Northamptonshire, England

Peer Schouten (School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden): The infrastructural construction of publics: the Janus face of representation by international actors in Congo


Sarah Whatmore (Professor of Environment and Public Policy, University of Oxford): Experimental Publics: Science, Democracy and the Redistribution of Expertise



Andrew Barry (Professor of Human Geography, University College, London): Material Politics and the Reinvention of the Public


Andreas Birkbak (Department of Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg University, Denmark): Facebook pages as ’demo versions’ of issue publics

Gwendolyn Blue (Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Canada): Animal publics: Political subjectivity after the human subject

Ferenc Hammer (Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary): The Hungarian Roundabout and Further Settings for the Authoritarian Subject: Technologies of Self-Governance in Everyday Practices

Jonathan Metzger (Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden): Moose re:public – traversing the human/non-human divide in the politics of  transport infrastructure development


Lindsay Bremner (Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Westminster): The Political Life of Rising Acid Mine Water

Blanca Callén (Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, Lancaster University): The making of obsolescence: how things become public in the age of precariousness

Michael Guggenheim, Joe Deville, Zuzana Hrdlickova (Department of Sociology Goldsmiths, University of London): The Megaphone and the Map: Assembling and Representing the Public in Disaster Exercises

Owain Jones (Environmental Humanities, Bath Spa University): Is My Flesh Not Public? Thinking of bodies and ‘the public’ through water


Jon Coaffee (Professor in Urban Geography, University of Warwick): Citizenship and Democracy in the City 2.0: Balancing the Quest for Resilience and the Public Interest in Urban Development

new perspectives on the problem of the public event

Here’s some preliminary information about an event which I’m co-convening next year:

Call for Papers: New Perspectives on the Problem of the Public, on 15-16 May 2014

The Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster is hosting a two-day conference, ‘New Perspectives on the Problem of the Public’, 309 Regent Street, 15-16 May 2014.

This inter-disciplinary conference brings together researchers from communications and media, built environment, education, geography and political theory to discuss the implications of the rise of new strands of pragmatist, complexity and new materialist approaches to democracy and the public sphere. We will examine how non-traditional conceptualisations of the ‘public’ might be relevant to various fields of practice and policy making. What roles remain for institutions of governance in a complex, fluid, more pluralist world, less amenable to modernist conceptions of power? What are the implications if representation is increasingly understood as a barrier to the emergence of the public, rather than as a means of accessing it?  Does it make sense to think about ‘public goods’ such as health and education if the public can no longer be taken for granted? Could understandings of the public in political theory and policy making be enriched and problematised by their conceptualisations in other academic fields?

Guest speakers:

Clive Barnett (Professor of Geography and Social Theory, University of Exeter) – ‘Emergent Publics’

Andrew Barry (Professor of Human Geography, University College, London) – ‘Material Politics and the Reinvention of the Public’

Jon Coaffee (Professor in Urban Geography, University of Warwick) – ‘Citizenship and Democracy in the City 2.0: Balancing the Quest for Resilience and the Public Interest in Urban Development’

John Law (Professor of Sociology, Open University) – title to be confirmed

Sarah Whatmore (Professor of Environment and Public Policy, University of Oxford) – ‘Experimental Publics: Science, Democracy and the Redistribution of Expertise’

We invite papers and panel proposals on the following topics (we are keen to include a wide variety of academic fields):

* new representations of the public
* the public and the role of teaching/knowledge
* materials and policy-making
* space and the production of the public
* crisis, responsivity and resilience

We have some funding to support travel and subsistence for paper presenters. The deadline for abstracts (250 words) is Friday 21 February 2014. Please send abstracts to Michele Ledda ( Robert Cowley ( and David Chandler (


You can book a place here, and click here for the university webpage for this event.


A disturbing prospect: the Basilica of Ancient Kourion/Curium (Cyprus)

Do cities dream? You’d be forgiven for writing the idea off as nonsensical. But I would like to suggest that it is possible to talk meaningfully about the dream life of a city, and that this dreaming might actually matter quite a lot.

Before thinking about cities specifically in this regard, I should sketch out the cod-philosophical framework within which I am considering reality more generally here. This is built around the contention that there is a dreamy dimension to our lived spatiality, which is layered on top of a perceptual one.

By ‘lived spatiality’, I mean the world as it appears to us. I have no way of knowing whether ‘reality itself’ exists prior to our perceiving it (or whether space exists prior to our inhabiting it). By ‘material’, or ‘objective’ reality, then, I mean the external reality that I seem to perceive, which is given shape through my perception.

To take things a step further, the world seems to us (or at least to me) to contain many people, and there seem to be enough commonalities in the way we all perceive this world for a spatialised interactive process of co-existence within it to be possible. Its reality, then, is objective insofar as we all seem to perceive it in the same way. At the same time, though, this objective reality is always inflected, and structured into meaning, by our individual emotions, interpretations and imaginations. In this sense, we can only ever live through a sort of dream of reality; without our dreams, material reality has no meaning.

Do we each create our own world, then? Dreams, it might be argued, are only ever personal; and to think of them otherwise would be at best an intellectual conceit. And yet dreams don’t begin and end within an individual’s mind; they work in more interactive ways. First, in that the ‘raw materials’ of our dreams are collectively perceived; each individual’s dreams are grounded in what at least appears to be a shared external world. Second, in that individual dreams may congeal into collective discourses; we may have, or come to have, similar dreams to other people’s, and influence each other’s dreams through our words and actions. Third, in that, because our dreams shape our actions, and these actions have tangible effects on the physical space that we share, they (or at least their reflections) become visible for all to see. The broader sphere of dreams, then, seems to be a paradoxical one, at once personal and collective, subjective and objective, or flipping backwards and forwards between the two.

So then, onto cities. The other day, I visited the ruins of ancient Kourion with various family members. It’s always a little unsettling to walk around abandoned human settlements of any sort; they seem like very strange types of places. I was there, but was it there?  Is ‘Kourion’ a real place, or perhaps an ex-place, or an image of a place? All of these in different ways? I was dreaming about it – trying to understand what it is, and imagine what it was – so what roles might dreaming play in a place of this type? My intention here in any case is not to engage with the theoretical debates about the nature of ‘place’; I am consciously using the term in a lazy way. My circling thoughts grouped themselves together instead into the following question, which is still far from unproblematic, but which I have tried to answer below in simple terms:

In what senses does the ‘city of Kourion’ still exist?  

Socially, first, the city of Kourion clearly no longer exists. It doesn’t function as the setting for, or describe, the ongoing effects of, cultural, economic or political processes. (Of course, it does play host to, and is affected by, the activities and interactions of its maintenance staff and visitors, and is located within broader regulatory, academic and economic networks, and so on – but all this relates to its existence as a visitor attraction, rather than as a city.)

Materially, then? On balance, yes. Okay, its physical structure is degraded to such an extent that it would be unrecognisable as a city were it not for the immense amount of archaeological work that has gone into ‘restoring’ it. In fact, what now exists is primarily a selective, conceptual map – a static representation – of an evolving complex of material forms sharing the same space long ago. And yet that space is the same one, and (at least some of) the stones are the same ones; although mediated through excavation, rearrangement and representation for general consumption, they haven’t entirely been abstracted.

And dreamily?  Sort of. The real citizens, of course, who once gave meaning to the material space around them through their dreams, are long gone, and with them their ability to shape and reshape its physical form. Nevertheless, and in a partial sense only, this city does still exist as a space of dreams; what is left of its materiality induces subjective interpretations and daydreams in the visitors who perceive it. Almost as if, as a frozen artefact, it is able still to emit dreams but no longer to soak them up.


A theatre with no audience


A public space with no public

An entirely different ‘partial city’ is depicted in Neil Gaiman’s (2012) Tale of Two Cities, which I first read about in Steve Pile’s (2005) Real Cities. The hero of Gaiman’s comic-book story – Robert – travels home from work one day on a different train to usual, after working late at the office. This train, unfortunately, doesn’t stop in the normal places; Robert gets off as soon as he can, at an unknown station. On leaving the station, however, he is unable to orient himself (or even find the way back to the station). He walks and walks, and seems to half-recognise much of what he sees and smells, but the city’s geography no longer makes sense to him, and his sense of time is lost. He is in fact unable to decide whether or not he is still in the city he knows. He looks longingly at the marvellous goods on display in the shop windows, but all the shops are closed. There are no other people around, except that “from time to time he could feel eyes on him from the windows and doorways”, and “there were certain other people in the city, but they were brief, fleeting people who shimmered and vanished” (32). On a bridge, he does find an old man, who explains what has happened: Robert is, it turns out, still in the city he knows, but “the city is asleep, and…we are all stumbling through the city’s dream” (35).


Robert’s city and Kourion complement each other rather nicely. Both constitute partial representations of urbanity, but while Kourion coincides materially with, and corresponds conceptually to, a tangible reality, Robert’s city floats free – to the extent that it is entirely based on the author’s fantasy. Kourion is forever frozen; Robert’s city is entirely fluid. If Kourion can only shape dreams, Robert’s city can only ever be shaped by them. A ‘real city’ would encompass both of these aspects of reality; the physical city and the subjectivities of its individual inhabitants. The relationship between the two would be a dynamic one, with dreams continually translating each into the other. In this sense, the idea that a city might dream is more of a useful idea than it might sound at first.

I’m thinking about dreams here in a very broad way: imaginations, daydreams, longings, adulations. Dreams of all sorts seem to be magnified in cities. Religion, for example, might be viewed as an important form of urban dreaming. Empirical definitions of the ‘city’ often refer to the tendency for cities to be significant sites of worship (see, for example: Moholy-Nagy, 1969; Lynch, 1981; Short, 2002) – and religion often features in theories of how the earliest cities emerged, and what defined them as cities rather than villages. In such theories, causal links are made in different directions between religious worship and factors such as economic surpluses and social stratification. Somehow, though, power structures emerged, naturalised through religious worship, and reinforced through monumental architecture (Chant, 1999). There was a dynamic relationship between the adulation of the citizens and the existence of this monumental architecture. Did the stones of the city shape their dreams, or was it the other way round?

Cities continue to play host to of all sorts of yearnings and adulations, focused on different types of shrines: overtly religious in many cases, but also political, commercial, and cultural. Again, such shrines do exist elsewhere, but they are more obviously concentrated in cities (often in potentially contradictory ways). And it is not the case that the city has a pre-existing objective form which simply ‘acts on’ us, which we simply dream about (like Kourion) – rather, the city is also built by us in certain ways that reflect our fears, hopes, and longings (like Robert’s city). I’m jumping around randomly here, but we might also consider the way that housing markets are fuelled by our dreams for a better life: we buy or build particular types of houses, and decorate them in certain ways, for reasons extending far beyond the instrumental. Our own physical presence in a city, as resident or visitor, may well constitute the expression of a dream of what the city will be like; we may seek to realise these dreams in the way we live in the city, and thereby reshape it through our actions.


“Hmm, I think this design would look nice in the lounge”

Specific dreams may come eventually to be understood as illusions. But the perceived physicality of the city can never entirely be separated from its dreaminess. If the urban ‘sphere of dreams’ is somehow simultaneously subjective and objective, a bridge between the two, it may function in the same way as what we call the ‘public sphere’ does, or – since publics are generally thought of as multiple – what might be called the ‘sphere of publics’. In this respect, I am interested in nature of Robert’s fellow citizens: either temporary, flickering forms; or vaguely perceived strangers whose are watching him. His partial city seems to end where what I think of as the public dimensions of the city begin. Although alone in his city, Robert can comprehend the fact of the connectedness of his subjectivity with unpredictable, various others, and the fact that his actions are often observed by unknown others. The physical reality of these other human beings, however, eludes him; he has no way of knowing if they are anything other than imaginary.

In the real city (or society more generally), publics – like dreams – are ontologically and epistemologically paradoxical. They seem to form a sphere which is neither personal, nor fully part of perceptual external reality, and yet they are both of these at once. I’ve been reading Michael Warner’s (2002) take on publics. On the one hand, he points out, publics – like Robert’s ‘flicker people’ – are notional and imaginary: “[a] public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than the discourse itself” (67), and open-ended: “a public is by definition an indefinite audience rather than a social constituency that could be numbered or named” (55-56). On the other, they are empirically grounded: their “imaginary character is never merely a matter of private fantasy” (74); they “have become an essential fact of the social landscape” (65); and they have social effects, in that we can “attribute agency to a public, even though that public has no institutional being or concrete manifestation” (89). Publics, in short, like dreams, are simultaneously ethereal and agentive. And their significance for democracy lies precisely in the way that, as forms of association which emerge unpredictably and coalesce mysteriously out of the fragmented subjectivity of the social world, they nevertheless hover outside the institutions of state authority:

 “Imagine how powerless people would feel if their commonality and participation were simply defined by pre-given frameworks, by institutions and laws, as in other social contexts they are through kinship. What would the world look like if all ways of being public were more like applying for a driver’s license or subscribing to a professional group – if, that is, formally organised mediations replaced the self-organized public as the image of belonging and common activity? Such is the image of totalitarianism: non-kin society organised by bureaucracy and the law. Everyone’s position, function, and capacity for action are specified for her by administration” (Warner, 2002, p.69).

Perhaps, then, in talking about the dream life of the city, I am in fact thinking about its public sphere. In a way, that’s true – but dreams go wider than this; perhaps dreams are preconditions for the emergence of a public; perhaps they are also what is captured in the material effects that publics have. And there is no guarantee that a public will emerge from a dream; individuals may have the same dream but have no means of knowing that they share this dream with others. A dream may never be ‘publicised’ in the sense of being mediated through an address to a (simultaneously imaginary and real) audience of strangers. The individual, or the kinship group, may forever dream alone. But even the dream of one person may have social effects.

And the sphere of publics is in any case firmly associated with modernity. In pre-modern times, it is more reasonable to think that dreams underscored what Habermas calls the “publicness (or publicity) of representation”, which was “not constituted as a social realm, that is, as a public sphere; rather, it was something like a status attribute” (Habermas, 1989: 7, italics in original). There is little in this older form of publicness which is democratic; rather, it describes a situation where the “domain of common concern…remained a preserve where the church and state authorities had the monopoly of interpretation” (36). The dream of religion is, furthermore, still active in this sense: “In church ritual, liturgy, mass, and processions, the publicity that characterised representation has survived into our time” (8). I wouldn’t single out religion in this respect; our dreams go on supporting other ‘representational’ institutions and formations which have little to do with democracy. Our dreams, then, are just as likely to lead to authoritarianism, feudalism, demagogy, or nationalism.

It is only in a static utopia, or a perfectly realised totalitarian state, that all of our dreams would be identical, and in harmony with the physicality of the city around us: a city whose power structures were hegemonic and uninterrupted. Real cities will always go on dreaming in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Yet their materiality will always to some extent constitute a (shifting) landscape of power: dreams which are common to many, and/or backed by power, are more likely to be visibly represented in their physical form.

Of course, power takes all sorts of different forms. I see the workings of power in a society as rather closely related to the qualities of its dream life – to the particular mix of dreams (and nightmares) that it evokes, gathers together, gives concrete expression to, fragments, and represses. Cities, as intense concentrations of both artefacts and subjectivities, are the arenas where the sphere of dreams has always done most of its work. And if it is the particular qualities of this dream life, rather than its presence or absence, that have positive significance, then the post-Enlightenment emphasis on shedding our ‘illusions’ about life, on seeing things ‘as they really are’, seems misplaced. As an ambition, it relates only to the apocalyptic idea which so terrifies Robert on his return to the real world: the prospect – which places like Kourion present to us so disturbingly – of the city which has ‘woken up’.


15 August 2013, Lefkosia (or thereabouts).


Chant, C. (1999). The Near East. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.) Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge: 1–47.

Gaiman, N. (2012) [originally published 1993]. The Sandman Volume 8: Worlds’ End. New York: DC Comics.

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

Lynch, K. (1981). Good City Form. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Moholy-Nagy, S. (1969). Matrix of Man: Illustrated History of Urban Environment. London: Pall Mall Publishers.

Pile, S. (2005). Real Cities: Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of City Life. London: Sage.

Short, J. (2002). Three Urban Discourses. In: Bridge, G. & Watson, S. (eds.) A Companion to the City. Oxford: Blackwell: 18–25.

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.

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