Public Spaces And The “Publicness”: Something Is Changing

Fernando Barreiro Cavestany

By Fernando Barreiro Cavestany, on March 18th, 2014

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The main features of public spaces are that they are public (not private), have open access and are used by many people for common purpose. But, this ideal of public space, open to everyone, does it exist in reality? Isn’t there the potential for domination by some groups? Public space today is considered to be a conflicted and contested battlefield of and for power.

Accessible, Yet Filtered

Public squares are still important. Physically they are easily accessible; they are at the crossroad of streets and at “hubs” of the flows of transport, people, goods, lights and sounds of the cities. However, they are filtered, and they have invisible yet nearly impenetrable boundaries. They are not accessible to everyone: cameras, police and private security are watching and selecting who “deserves” to be allowed into these spaces.

Looking, Rather Than Living?

Privatization has, for a long time, been considered the main threat to public space. However, public space is threatened not only by privatization, but also by individualism. The danger is not just that somebody is interested in appropriating public space for private interests like business; another trend is the lack of interest in public concerns among individuals. As Alexis de Tocqueville said “The individual is the worst enemy of the citizen”. A clear trend of modern life–the domination of market relations and total commercialization of social life- also has consequences for the aesthetics and visualization of cities and their public squares.  It has resulted, for instance in the proliferation of advertisements in various forms and shapes – see recent URBACT blogs here and here. Squares, as the quintessential public space, have experienced significant transformations and become subject to the “passive spectatorship” of looking, rather than living.

Space Of Place VS Space Of Flows

In any case, there is a resistance towards total commercialization. For instance, some public spaces remain sites of cultural expression and identity, while others are taken over by youth and other subcultures. Squares still have some space for leisurely walking unconnected with consumption.
Public space is associated with “sociability”, with the potential for encounter and communication between strangers.  It implies that people come to public space and stay there to encounter one another, to use the space for gathering and as a stage to perform particular social interactions.  But today, “space of place” is more often replaced by the “space of flows” (Castells, 1989). They become places full of people from elsewhere, going elsewhere.  Gatherings in contemporary cities are temporary in character and replaced by events. Mainly, squares become sites of temporariness, people comes here not to be together but to wait for the friends with whom they will go then to the shopping mall or to the pub.
Why should public spaces always be considered permanent, in the context of staying and stability? Could it instead become temporary, flexible, movable, and still remain public?
Can we link these new concepts of space and place with the original notion of public space?

Should We Change Our Way Of Thinking About Public Space?

We should acknowledge that public space in the city is not a goal in itself, but a means of performing public life.  So, public space only makes sense as a condition to be used by the “public” But what is the public? And which part of it is found in public space in this age of mobility and individualism?
Should we change our way of thinking about public spaces? Should we perceive urban public space as “events” and “processes” rather than as places?  We should take the changing realities of modern life into consideration and adopt a new approach to “publicness” to understand public spaces in our cities today.

Read more about the experiences of exploring public space in the USER network!

By Fernando Barreiro (Lead-Expert of the USER project)

One Response to “Public Spaces And The “Publicness”: Something Is Changing”

  1. […] Barreiro Cavestany, F 2014, ‘Public Spaces and the “Publicness”: Something is Changing’, web page, accessed 12/9/14, […]

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