Public space is a difficult concept to grapple with because there is no straightforward definition of what the word ‘public’ means. Most people today would probably define public space as that space used in common by the general population. But even definitions as simple as this can be problematic, for the word ‘public’ has a range of concurrent meanings. What kinds of things are ‘public’? We might call an event or celebration in an open area of a city ‘public,’ in contrast to an invite-only affair (Habermas, 1989). But whilst certain kinds of ‘public buildings’ like libraries are open to anyone, others have restricted access. Town Halls or parliaments, for instance, offer only limited and controlled access to members of the public even though they exist for the public (Latham et al., 2009). The ‘publicness’ of these spaces is not about their use but their ownership—the opposite of which can be said for the space of the shopping mall. Legally speaking shopping malls are private property, and owners have the right to exclude who they please. But in terms of everyday experience, they are open to, and animated by, the public (Latham et al., 2009). These examples suggest that the quality of ‘publicness’ consists of a range of relationships established between spaces and the people who inhabit, use and create them (Staeheli & Mitchell, 2008).
Though there is no definitive understanding of what public space is, a ‘republican’ tradition of thinking within urban geography has long associated it with certain ideological principles, such as civil discourse and political equality (Ruppert, 2006). These ideas are underpinned by Jürgen Habermas’ theorisation of the public sphere—described as an abstract, universally accessible space in which “political participation is enacted through the medium of talk” (Fraser, 1990: 57; Sennett, 1974). Habermas (1989) traces the origins of this sphere back to the early 18th century, when a shift in the relationship between ‘town’ and ‘court’ saw private bourgeois interests challenge the dominance of the state in public affairs. The ‘town’ was empowered by the growth of new institutions such as the coffeehouses of Paris and London, which, at their peak in the early 18th century, were busy hives of social and political interaction (Habermas, 1989). Crucially, anyone in the coffeehouse had the right “to enter into any conversation, whether he knew the other people or not, whether he was bidden to speak or not” (Sennett, 1974: 81). The public sphere is thus celebrated by ‘republican’ scholars as an inclusive and democratic space, transcending barriers of social hierarchy.
This theorisation is, however, insufficient in several areas (Ruppert, 2006). Firstly, the idea that social standing does not matter in the operation of the public sphere is erroneous—the public sphere “rested on, indeed was importantly constituted by, a number of significant exclusions” (Fraser, 1990: 59). Joan Landes (1988), for instance, has outlined how masculinist gender constructs were used in Revolution-era France to formally exclude women from political life. Second, Habermas asserts that the creation of numerous, competing publics is a step away from greater democracy. But this is debatable—the existence of multiple publics and spheres could arguably strengthen democracy (Ruppert, 2006). ‘Humanist’ scholars, for example, have envisaged inclusive public spaces “in which persons stand forth with their differences acknowledged and respected, though perhaps not completely understood, by others” (Young, 1990: 119). Jane Jacobs’ (1961) work on cities and urban sociability has been particularly influential within this scholarship. Here, the shared spaces of the city are said play stage to an “intricate ballet” (Jacobs, 1961: 50), in which people of different classes, races, religions and ideologies interact and intermingle to create a “thick fabric of heterogeneity” (Mitchell, 2003: 19; Ruppert, 2006). This, in turn, is said to foster such values as mutual respect and tolerance, and ultimately public spaces and forums in which “anyone can speak and anyone can listen” (Young, 1990: 240). Crucially, then, humanist theory marries ideas of sociability and politics to imagine a public sphere that allows “for a range of activities and for the appearance of a range of identities” (Staeheli & Mitchell, 2008: 120).
Some, however, argue that we are witnessing the ‘end’ of public space—in a humanist sense, at least. Attracting the investment of global capital is now a top priority for most modern cities, and as a result of this, urban governance decisions and redevelopments are increasingly driven by corporate strategy (Latham et al., 2009). In this narrative, cities increasingly seek to replace their shared spaces with landscapes of consumption “unsullied by images of work, poverty, or social strife” (Mitchell, 2003: 186), through which citizens “can move without obstruction, effort, or engagement” (Sennett, 1994: 18). Rough sleepers and other marginalised populations “provide ‘resistance’ to this unfettered movement” (Mitchell, 2003: 189) by causing us discomfort, anxiety, and guilt as we navigate the city. Viewed as little more than ‘broken windows’, their visible presence serves to remind us of the need to privatise, or otherwise ‘gain control’ of unruly urban spaces (Wilson & Kelling, 1982; Mitchell, 2003). This has been achieved through a new ‘revanchist’ approach to urban governance, detailed by Don Mitchell (2003) and Neil Smith (1996, 2002). Here, ‘zero-tolerance’ laws or ‘quality of life’ initiatives aim to restore rigorous social order and promote economic success via the demonisation and banishment of squatters, beggars, and prostitutes (Smith, 1996). Though they are motivated by an irrational fear of strangers or ‘outsiders’, these policies are often defended in the name of ‘cleanliness’ and ‘public safety’ (Staeheli & Mitchell, 2008). It is considered only unfortunate that making public spaces ‘safer’ for some must now come at the expense of excluding others “who create anxiety merely by their physical presence” (Ruppert, 2006: 21).
To make matters worse, Michael Sorkin (1990) argues, the ownership of public spaces is more and more frequently being handed over to the private sector. ‘Privatisation’ in this sense effectively trades a democratic system of regulation with a private one, placing the control of public space in the hands of individuals (Zukin, 1995; Purcell, 2003). Though there is often a presumption of ‘publicness’ in these these ‘pseudo-public spaces’, “access to and use of the space is only a privilege, not a right” (Banerjee, 2001: 12). After all, property is first and foremost “the right to exclude and to alienate” (Staeheli & Mitchell, 2008: 143). In privately-owned business and/or shopping districts, for instance, the general public is usually only welcome only if they intend to spend money in shops and restaurants. Such places are ‘fortified’ more and more by private security forces and technologies, which “overlay military-style systems of command, control and targeting over the everyday spaces and systems of civilian life” (Graham, 2010: 394; Davis, 1990). Through specific ‘regulatory regimes’—consisting of laws, regulations, surveillance, and policing—private entities are able to sort the public into categories of desirable and undesirable, and are therefore crucially involved in the making of the public (Weintraub, 1997; Ruppert, 2006).
Two conflicting accounts thus emerge: one asserting a strong relationship between urban public space, sociability, and equal political participation; the other lamenting the ‘death’ of public spaces at the hands of corporate capitalists and ‘urban revanchists’. But through the development of a ‘post-humanist’ perspective, scholars such as Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2002) have reimagined public spaces as ‘becomings’: entanglements of human and non-human matter that are “created and recreated every day by the quotidian practices of urban inhabitants” (Purcell, 2003: 578; Amin, 2008). Here, the city is both the creative product of, and context for, the everyday life of its citizens (Lefebvre, 1991; Purcell, 2003). This scholarship draws on the work of actor-network theorists, who have long asserted that an ontological line cannot be drawn between nature and culture, things and people, objects and subjects (Latour, 2007). Perhaps most significantly, post-humanist thought breaks from a long tradition that has “located the culture and politics of public spaces … in the quality of inter-personal relations in such spaces” (Amin, 2008: 5). For democratic encounters between strangers do not always play out positively—in reality, amidst a “thrown togetherness of bodies, mass and matter” (Amin, 2008: 8), “love and hate, empathy and antipathy co-exist in ambiguous and ambivalent tension” (Watson, 2006: 2).
Public space, then, in a post-humanist account, is continually produced and re-produced by a variety of human and non-human inputs such as design, technology, and nature (Lefebvre, 1991; Amin, 2008). As scholars such as Mariana Valverde (2005, 2012) make clear, this process occurs primarily at the municipal scale. Here, different people with different agendas produce public space through governance decisions (Mitchell, 2003).