The power of the state has changed the essential idea of public space as a space for socialization, expression and democracy
Just over 20 years ago, Mike Davis and Michael Sorkin predicted the end of public space as we knew it. ‘America’s cities are being rapidly transformed by a sinister and homogeneous design’, they wrote at the time. ‘A new kind of urbanism - manipulative, dispersed, and hostile to traditional public space - is emerging both at the heart and at the edge of town in megamalls, corporate enclaves, gentrified zones, and pseudo-historic marketplaces.It marked the beginning of the realisation that public space was being stealthily privatised and commodified; the historic freedoms of the agora and the piazza replaced by the patrolled and proscribed confine of the theme park and shopping mall.
This creeping proscription has long since become a pervasive feature of modern life. The urban realm is no longer an armature for spontaneous human interaction; it’s a film set, up close and personal, with battalions of CCTV cameras documenting every waking and walking move we make. In a statistic as absurd as it is depressing, there are estimated to be nearly 6 million security cameras in the U K, one for every 10 people. Why does a small island with a relatively mild-mannered population feel such intense paranoia about how its citizens behave in public?
Fundamentally, the character of public space is shaped and defined by how people choose to use it. Yet such a laissez-faire philosophy is increasingly regarded as inimical. A bill currently making its waythrough the UK parliament proposes to expand the power of the state to control what goes on in public space, mitigating any activity considered ‘detrimental’ to the quality of life with powers of prohibition, dispersal and confiscation. Seeing beyond the kind of mentality that could regard things such as carol singing and nudists as being a legal ‘nuisance’, the bill’s implications are profound. ‘This is a new alliance of a business and state elite set against civil society’, writes Josie Appleton. The proposed new powers have the potential to prohibit ‘any activity that is not shopping or getting from A to B’. Two decades on, it is the logical culmination of the trajectory identified by Sorkin and Davis ‘in which the idea of authentic interaction among citizens has been thoroughly purged’.
How can we rediscover the essential idea of public space and recast and reconnect with it at both the political and personal level? Throughout history, public space has acted as a vital conduit for recreation, expression and democracy. The character of public space defines civic life. ‘People come not to be alone, but to be together; to interact, exchange, trade, innovate and collaborate’, writes Benjamin Barber in this month’s Broader View. But it is just this coming together that now seems to be under threat. ‘In constructing public space, designers and planners bring to bear the defining density, creativity, diversity, openness and communality that are the city’s character,’ writes Barber. ‘They are exploiting the city’s core feature: its liberty’. But for how much longer?