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Public Space Rewired: ‘Social equity, urban infrastructure and privacy can no longer be understood in isolation’

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Architects, both urban and software, have a shared responsibility for the social and political consequences of their design decisions

What is public space? Its definition has been shifting for the past 30 years, in what social geographer David Harvey described as a sea change in cultural and social-economic practices. Today, networked technologies – from smart phones to online platforms – have blurred online and offline boundaries, and traditional definitions of the public and public space are being continually remade. What might this mean for the public realm? Most critically, public space, social equity, urban infrastructure and privacy can no longer be understood in isolation. They are all interconnected through wireless technology.

Jürgen Habermas defines public space as a set of practices, separate from the state, in which individuals can discuss topical issues in a free and unrestricted way. By this definition, the internet can construct a dynamic public space by creating a social network of discourse. While in the city, networked technologies are orchestrating urban practices, from remotely adjusted networked traffic signals, to location-aware apps such as Foursquare, which (among other things) combines restaurant reviews with health inspection data. In cities from Amsterdam to Zaragoza, a citizen card – effectively an electronic pass and bank card – offers access to free citywide wi-fi networks, municipal bike sharing, museum and library privileges, and free public transport. In China, 40 per cent of the population use their phones to pay for goods and services using an app such as WeChat or Alipay. 

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Rtxfcy9[1]

The Tiananmen Square student-led protest attracted troops with assault rifles and tanks who went on to kill hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators, Beijing, 1989

In addition to government institutions or private corporations are participatory practices such as civic hacking, crowdsourcing, urban games and the open data movement. Social media becomes public through the actions of its agents, who engage in reflexive, sometimes spontaneous, democratic activity. Bottom-up efforts are the more promising aspects of this wired practice. Described as DIY urbanism, projects include the installation of free neighbourhood wi-fi, as with the Detroit Digital Stewards, and other community toolkits that foster equal access to information through mesh networks – ad hoc set-ups that wirelessly connect devices to each other without passing through any centralised organisation, such as an ISP. DIY efforts may also overlap with other movements, including internet activism. Some of the best-known examples are the Independent Media Center and the Occupy movement. DIY differs from activism in that, although networked technologies may be employed for organisational purposes, the objective is to promote change directly within an existing neighbourhood, to strengthen community and democratic efforts.  

In that sense, networked urbanism simultaneously encourages a reassessment of institutional planning and decision making. In addition to using infrastructure-focused sites such as FixMyStreet or Fill That Hole, city governments are increasingly embracing websites and apps to involve constituents in land-use planning and control, offering citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns. ‘The point is not to turn over land-use authority outright to the public’, argues Lee Anne Fennell, ‘but rather to find better ways to elicit, aggregate, coordinate and channel the preferences, intentions, and experiences of current and future land-users … Planners must begin shifting their focus from the top-down regulation of land use to the development of information platforms for coordinating land use.’ Realising the potential of these technologies, however, relies on equal and universal access. It cannot be overemphasised that a connected city needs to connect everyone

1280px the massacre of peterloo

1280px the massacre of peterloo

At the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester, the cavalry charged the crowd of 60-80,000 who were demanding parliamentary representation reform

At present, high-speed fibre networks are not evenly distributed. They tend to exist in areas with a higher income level – the disparity conflicts with previous notions of what is held in common or public. This is destabilising historic democratic principles related to civitas and the rights of access to the city, an integral element of the urban public realm. As a result, alongside the push for open data stands a concurrent need for research and development based on actual user (citizen) needs rather than perceived market-driven objectives. 

While networked technologies have been instrumental in producing new kinds of spaces and new spatial practices, they have also substantiated new methods of discipline and control. Where online conversations lead to real-world action in the form of protests, boycotts and sit-ins, such action can have significant spatial implications. So social media can be understood as a re-territorialisation of public space, one that affords an increased  mode of interaction, contributing to wider accessibility and distribution throughout its intended community. The repurposing  of social networking tools offers creative opportunities that can result in actual empowerment on the ground. And when online counterpublics find expression in physical space, it is often with strategic political objectives. Although demonstrations in previous decades might have been organised with potential news coverage in mind, they were not deployed with the same tactical precision and intentional global media dissemination as today. A circularity of content and action moves from online to offline space and back, completing a performative cycle.

Gettyimages 457982208 (2) from getty. rupert

Gettyimages 457982208 (2) from getty. rupert

The spontaneous pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, 2014, in Hong Kong. Umbrellas were used for defence against tear gas

This reflexivity has not gone unnoticed. Governments are rapidly attempting to put legislation in place that will eliminate many of the freedoms we have come to associate with public assembly in general.   The US, Canada and Spain have all proposed or passed legislation circumscribing the space of protest and criminalising peaceful demonstrations, effectively preventing the space of activism from reaching its intended audience. US representatives, according to journalist Spencer Woodman, ‘are proposing a plan to reclassify as a felony civil disobedience protests that are deemed ‘economic terrorism’. While elected officials invoke security measures to justify their decisions, others speculate on their objective to manipulate space into a sanitised set piece for global news cameras: precisely why we should be concerned. Whatever demonstrators have to say, their presence at these events carries a powerful message in and of itself that cannot be delivered as effectively in any other place. By removing protesters, the existence of dissent is erased, thereby disseminating a false reality throughout the information network. 

It is not only dissent that is being circumscribed. As sensors relay information about space, the ephemeral datascapes that defined initial encounters with the internet are giving rise to a new media  of geospatial information. If the entire city effectively becomes a wireless sensor network system with data spontaneously generated from each point, individuals can then be geographically located and monitored at all times. It is concerning that this future assemblage of wireless sensor networks and urban space has the capacity to instantiate a vast applied control topology that braids sensors with data, social media and mapping – in other words, context. In this way, we have come 180 degrees, from the placelessness of the early internet, to the present, in which every nodal point can be located, interconnected and aware. It is one thing to collect and model  data to understand the complex interactions of a city, it is quite another to see authoritarian regimes use those same methods of data collection to discipline urban residents and silently go forward.

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Ec7m78

Citizens offered themselves up for arrest at a police station in the Sharpeville township in Transvaal in a protest against pass laws. Many were shot in the back as they fled after the police opened fire

The integration of networked technologies into location-based protocols and the expropriation of that data to external sources raises serious questions about individual privacy. Thus, designers – both urban and software – have a shared responsibility to concentrate not only on problem solving but also on the social, political and environmental consequences of their design decisions. While the focus of this essay is not on policy making per se, adopting a humanistic approach to public space – defined as an ethical perspective that emphasises the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively – compels not only architects but also planners, programmers, public policy makers and ordinary citizens to understand future challenges and opportunities. 

Spatial production, as Lefebvre argued, is a series of negotiations between the ordering objectives of government and its economic interests, and the personal trajectory of its inhabitants. At the same time, spaces both constrain and enable actions, so space and action are connected. Networks are restructuring urban practices, but do not confuse this position with technological determinism. We need to consider these new conditions in light of how architects can meaningfully engage with change and shape this new world toward humanistic objectives. What has emerged is a slippery public, full of ambiguities and contradictions, visible and invisible, contaminated by state controls and private infiltrations. And yet, as imperfectly formed and flawed as it is, for communities in crisis or existing  on the margins of society, the public space of participation and protest can act as a force for political change, proving effective in communication, organisation and activism – at least for the present.