The End of Public Space (Redux?)

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Don Mitchell (1995, 2016) has debated the nature public space, and why under late capitalism, public space has a tendency to both ‘end’ and be produced again. Mitchell suggests that on one hand, capitalism (under neoliberal urbanism) destroys ‘real’ public space due to market pressure, while producing ‘abstract space’ (such as digital space). On the other hand though, and simultaneously, contestations and teritorrial struggles surrounding the ‘death’ of public space produce new ‘real’ public space (for example, as local governments are pressured into reaching agreements with developers to develop new public parks or urban plazas, or are forced to scrap development plans completely). So, as a space for publics is destroyed in the name of market-led development, a new space for publics is often born out of resistance to the destruction.

For Mitchell, there is no substitute for tangible, physical public space. The ‘homeless cannot live in the internet’ (1995), and therefore, Mitchell is somewhat disparaging of extending public space into the digital, or into the many hybrids formed by neoliberal partnerships and state-society-market interstices. Geographers like David Harvey (2012) are quick to note that resurgent activism around the world continues to be anchored to urban squares, parks and plazas, despite (and due) to the advent of a networked digital public.

Peoples’ Park, Berkeley (above) is a frequent referent for Mitchell, who has portrayed Peoples’ Park as both embodying what a true public space must – an open place for encounter, occupation and representation – but also, as a recurring site of struggle. Peoples’ Park is a 2-plus acre urban green in Berkeley that is technically owned by the University of California, but since the 1960s has been a site of homeless assembly (during the day) and also a symbol of the American free speech movement, which has its origins in 1960s Berkeley radicalism. Therefore, the site has taken on a larger-than-life meaning for free speech advocates, homeless advocates, and for anyone mythologizing the Berkeley ideal (and 1960s activism in general). Mitchell has argued that Peoples’ Park has faced challenges on several occasions over its 50-year lifetime (various threats and plans to develop and secure the site), but each time has generated activism in one form or another which has (until now) saved the park and retained its ‘public’ status. Some of these tensions have been dramatic, such as the riots in the 1990s when renovations (including more lighting and volleyball courts) were proposed for the park. These plans were scrapped.

However, faced with a severe housing shortage for students and with lingering (and growing) complaints over drug use and antisocial behavior in the park, the University of California decided in May 2018 to develop the park into student housing (1000 units) and also, permanent supportive housing for the homeless. A small amount of green space would be preserved. This decision came after extensive consultation between the U.C. Regents and the local community, and is viewed by some as a compromise – addressing the needs of both the student community, increasingly priced out of Berkeley – and also, providing supportive care for the homeless residents who use the park.

If Peoples’ Park – which has symbolized for decades the true nature of public space – is developed, then is public space truly dead? Was it ever a public space at all? Is there, or can there be, a definition and theoretical understanding of the nature, texture, scales, and forms of public space, suited to both the residual neoliberal urban era and the age in which digital technology has re-shaped socio-spatial relations? Is the dominant understanding of public space too tempered by dominant / Western frames of what constitutes the ‘public’ v. ‘private’ spheres? And whose / which public, anyway? Public space, even in its truest and most democratic form, has never been equally produced or accessible (for example, by women; people of color; the disabled or elderly; LGBTQ persons, the homeless; the poor; other peripheralized groups over time).

These questions do not have a quick answer, but certainly deserve further discussion by spatial theorists who often fall back upon Lefebvrian and neo-Marxist interpretations of the nature of ‘space’ under late capitalism and time-space compression. These explanations and arguments have done little to produce new space for the marginalized.

There is a dearth of literature (though it is now emerging), on urban ‘gray’ spaces – those informal spaces neither public nor private, with use that is pop-up and informal, away from institutions, structures, and policy (see for example Kimberly Kinder’s ‘DIY Detroit’, 2016, or Gordon Douglas’s ‘Help Yourself City’, 2018). There deserves to be a more cohesive and central ontology of black public space, given the absence of black bodies from literal public spaces but also from spatial theoretical discussion; on queer public space, given the oft-foretold ‘death’ of queer space (really?); a better and more humanist discussion on homelessness in contemporary public space and different forms/understandings of ‘home’ and belonging; and finally, a more fully-linked discussion on scale and the networked nature of contemporary public space as imminently local and fixed while also global, fluid, and temporal.

These tensions and debates have long existed, but are as of yet, unresolved.

Meanwhile, the standoff at Peoples’ Park continues – reactions to the university’s May 2018 announcement have been mixed, but in true Berkeley style, there is unlikely to be decisive action soon. Until the bulldozers arrive (or even after), public space lives.

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