Public Space Is Fundamental to Democracy, No Wonder It’s Under Attack

A true public space is overtly political in that it is a democratized space. That is, there is no regular programming which dictates the goings on within such a space. Instead, the day to day happenings are largely decided by those who use the place. City government or other municipalities can manage or maintain public space, but cannot impose additional restrictive rules or regulations if the park or plaza is to remain truly democratic.

To enjoy such a space involves trusting strangers, and in all relationships of trust, there is risk. In the midst of food carts and outdoor chess there is also crime, and even the rare act of terrorism.

As the Project for Public Space has written in the past: “With mounting public anxiety, and the fact that the distinction between public and private space is becoming increasingly blurred, there is greater likelihood that places will be more intensely monitored, surveyed, even militarized, in order to evoke a sense of safety.”

This is certainly true in Detroit’s rebounding downtown. Once a bustling capital of midwest industry, Detroit’s city center was hollowed out by freeways and parking lots. Only recently have big money billionaires like Quicken Loan czar Dan Gilbert reinvested in downtown.

Now, Campus Martius park and adjoining Cadillac Square are once again lively places indeed, but at a price. They are heavily patrolled by red-jacketed private security. In every direction you look the plaza is festooned with corporate logos and speakers piping in commercially-sanctioned pop music. Nowhere are there any buskers or street performers. The area is sanitized for the young urban professionals who work inside Detroit’s towers, and for the tourists lured in from London and Sydney and Toronto.

There is life, but it feels like a life within a prison where little unplanned or unscripted can happen. The private security in red all work directly for Dan Gilbert. The cameras recording every inch of downtown belong to him too. Gilbert’s reputation for being an overzealous Watchman reached a peak a couple years ago. Local artists wasted no time lampooning the fact.

Gilbert even went so far as to personally put out a bounty on three teenage girls he’d caught tagging one of his buildings downtown. Seriously, who does a thing like that?

Beyond the sterilization of public space is the commodification, privatization, and neoliberalization of the commons – what’s become known as ‘place-making’ could more appropriately be termed ‘profit-making’. Each essentially has the same result: creating monetary barriers between poorer, unsavory types of people and the places we pretend are still public. I’m looking at you, High Line.

Or take Central Park, Frederick Olmsted’s egalitarian magnum opus. If somebody tried to privatize it there’d be round the clock riots. But say you gradually drive up the cost of housing around the park until the same result is achieved. Nobody notices until it’s too late. You have a cleaner, nobler green space within your Citadel for the Rich.

London’s garden bridge: the public park where groups and cyclists aren’t welcome

“It will set hearts racing and calm troubled minds,” according to the garden bridge’s chief promoter, Joanna Lumley. “It will enchant everyone who uses it.” But not, it turns out, if you’re in a group of eight or more, or if you want to ride a bicycle, or visit Thomas Heatherwick’s bridge by night – and certainly not if you’re planning a protest.

The constantly visible security policing pseudo-public places aren’t so much there to deter crime as they are to make the wealthy feel relaxed and the beggars feel unwelcome. Yes, once in a while there are real threats to security, or at least ones we’re told to Never Forget.

But these Security State excuses for over-policing have themselves been weaponized to halt that other fond traditional use of public space: The Protest.

Cousin to the rally, the march, the occupation, the uprising, or even the riot – the genus of disruption to the status quo is as essential to democracy as democracy is to public space. Both need one another, for without space to gather for a redress of grievances, society falls into a pit of anti-cohesive selfishness. Think of the empathy-crushing confines of the suburbs. You can barely cross the street, let along march down it en masse.

The removal of space for rebellion began in earnest in Paris in the 1850s when Georges-Eugène Haussmann was called in to expand the scale of the city and its streets by orders of magnitude. This was done for a number of reasons, but chief among them was to make it harder for revolutionaries to take and hold space. This trend was further exaggerated after the sit-down strikes in 1930s America where factory workers living just blocks away from the means of production could easily walk food from home to the occupation. The supply lines were short, and successful.

Sprawl after WWII was about making money from decentralized, isolated real estate, but it was also about keeping workers thinned out and unable to easily control their place of work. Imagine trying to shut down the plant when everyone is stuck in freeway gridlock for hours a day. Too busy, too stressed, too preoccupied.

We’ve obviously learned the mistake of sprawl, but have we learned the mistake of abolishing public space from our cities? A remote lawn park on the outskirts of town does not a revolution make. The central meeting points of a city must serve numerous functions. If they are taken from us by privatization, they must be taken back.

Such was famously the case when Occupy Wall Street began. Zuccotti Park was in fact a private space rightfully targeted for liberation in the weeks and months of revolt that caught fire in dozens of cities across the nation. Just the threat of privatization of Gezi Park in Istanbul was enough to launch a city wide rebellion that also spread nation-wide. The Turkish people fought and died in the streets to save one of the last public parks in the city from the bulldozers of a president committed to car-centric gentrification.

Even within shopping malls – private places that explicitly forbid free speech – the Black Lives Matter movement has taken and held space in defiance of property overshadowing human life.

Think of this as an overflowing dam. People have an inherent need and right to gather for all manner of reasons in the commons. You can hold them back only so long. Eventually, they’re going to find a crack and force their way through, more and more, until spaces previously closed off are flooded with rivers of democracy.

David Harvey – Slums and Skyscrapes: Housing and the City Under Neoliberalism