Conflicted Space

It is a truism that just as public space is critical to the functioning of the city, so is its nature, definition and usage the source of recurrent conflict. Public space wars are endemic to the city and, if anything, are becoming of renewed significance as cities undergo continuing rounds of regeneration to meet the challenges of global competition. The current restructuring of cities and of its public spaces has led some commentators to the pessimistic conclusion that what we are witnessing is the end of public space. If, as a variant of endism, the argument is overstated in a literal sense, what is less disputable is that public spaces have been and are being steadily eroded as a result of how the processes of urban restructuring are unfolding. Yet, they are processes which are by no means unchallenged. Alongside those who talk in terms of the end of public space are those who have raised the question of ‘whose public space?’, opening up the recognition that, however challenging, public spaces in the city need to serve the multiple publics comprising the city rather than just the particular interests of elite groups.

Such debates assume that we are able to define what we mean by public space. Initially, at least, this might appear a straightforward task. A minimal account might, then, define public space in terms of two fundamental criteria, its accessibility and its inclusion. A public space should be accessible to all and be inclusionary in the sense of not only how it is used but also in how it is produced, propositions that sound relatively uncontentious. Yet, neither term is unproblematic once they are unpacked, revealing the contradictions and tensions which accompany the meaning of public space and its production. Thus, accessibility is measurable in different ways, physically and socially. Arguing that a public space – such as a central square in a city – should be physically accessible, i.e. useable to all, would appear essential to the meaning of its being public. But accessibility measured socially, the meaning of that space to ourselves personally, might run counter to the logic of physical accessibility precisely because the more (physically) accessible a space the more impersonal it might become (because of the diversity and volume of people using it). If we could restrict its patronage – limit its physical accessibility – to certain groups then, socially such a space might become more accessible, at least for those able to regulate its usage. The contradiction begins to show why certain groups – those defined as street beggars, for example – might become the object of exclusion from key civic spaces. But more generally, the example illustrates the tensions that underpin the nature of what we mean by public space, how it is defined, how it is produced and how it is regulated.

City centre spaces, riverside regeneration sites and other such spaces belong more to the city as a whole, to all its residents. But it is precisely because their ownership is more diffuse that such spaces are more fragile, becoming in effect more easily appropriated by elite groups.

Cities are themselves sites of ongoing conflict and competition – between (for example) social classes, between users of different types of land, between car-owners and those dependent on public transport – so it is small wonder that conflict over public spaces is endemic. Added to this is that so much of the city actually comprises public space of one kind or another – or put another way, the term public space encompasses a wide variety of different types of activity reflecting the different dimensions of the city, social, political as well as economic. Yet, the competition between different groups and the frequency of different types of public space making up the city are insufficient explanations as to why conflict over public space is so commonplace. More fundamental are the unequal power relations between different groups within the city and what can be termed the ‘fragility’ of public space, its ability to be appropriated and regulated to meet the aims of particular groups and interests.

One way in which we can begin to understand the implications of this fragility stems from the meanings and importance public spaces have to everyday life. Here the reality is that it is in the local neighbourhoods in which we live that our investment in the city is most immediate, so that it is locally that conflicts over public space are likely to become more intense. Thus, while in popular imagination, and certainly in media attention, public space conflicts tend to focus on particular types of episode particularly those that have relevance for the city as a whole – the redesignation of key civic spaces, the creation of iconic buildings occupying key sites and linked to the rebranding of the city – in fact most conflicts are much more localised. From protests resisting the closure of a valued local public facility, to the reclaiming of streets and many others, conflicts over public space tend to be more commonplace in the neighbourhoods and communities in which we live than they are over changes in the key public spaces of the city. What are perceived to be the threats to a local public amenity, to the privatisation of a part of a major park such as the recent Go Ape application in Pollok Park, might generate sufficient opposition so that local residents will organise and participate in a march. Opposition to proposals to change key civic spaces, to introduce an architecturally contentious iconic building as part of a regenerated waterfront (as in the Fourth Grace in Liverpool for the Year of Culture in 2008) may be expressed popularly through the media and through other means, but rarely generates sufficient reaction that citizens feel the need to organise a march or demonstration. In other words, public spaces differ in the sense of ownership they generate – for those in the local neighbourhood the sense of ownership is more immediate as are the benefits (and possible disbenefits) arising from them. City centre spaces, riverside regeneration sites and other such spaces belong more to the city as a whole, to all its residents. But it is precisely because their ownership is more diffuse that such spaces are more fragile, becoming in effect more easily appropriated by elite groups. Significantly, such appropriation can become expressed as being in the public interest, as the means of instilling a sense of civic pride and so appealing to the collective interests of citizens as a whole.

The importance of this was readily apparent in the Victorian city and to its elites. The development of urban parks is a case in point, the establishment of which reflected not just the ability of the growing middle classes to impose their values on the working class but also, through the provision of such spaces, to attempt to control their behaviour within the city. Elsewhere within the city, particularly in its central area, privileged groups were able to inscribe their values into the urban landscape. Thus key civic spaces, and their adornment through the use of public art, were decided by local political elites. Use(r)s of the city centre considered inappropriate were moved to peripheral locations or excluded – the ongoing conflicts arising from street trading in the Victorian city or, as a more specific example, the physical marginalisation and successive relocating of Paddy’s Market in Victorian Glasgow illustrate the exclusionary processes accompanying public space usage and its regulation which favoured particular groups. By definition, such exclusionary processes question the extent to which spaces meet the basic criterion of publicness.

These historical precedents bear some relevance to the contemporary public space wars, even if the contexts in which they are being played out differ. The gentrification of cities, the emphasis placed on producing attractive city centres able to attract tourism and other inwards investment, the marketing of cities are all typical of the policies guiding the regeneration of cities which in turn is part of the neoliberal orthodoxy aimed at ensuring the competitiveness of the city in the marketplace. Each has profound implications on how public spaces are being reproduced and regulated effectively to serve particular interests.

Underpinning public space conflicts in the city are the unequal power relations between different groups. Yet a deeper level of analysis would need to venture into the contradictions between representative and participatory democracy and their implications for the production of public space. How public spaces are produced and regulated – how public they are – is based on a meaning of urban democracy that privileges (elected) representative democracy over participatory democracy. Hence the reality, that public spaces have been and are produced for us rather than with us. Yet, as the experience of any city will demonstrate, public space wars do not always reflect the interests of elite groups or the objectives of neoliberal policies. Closures of local public facilities are successfully resisted as are inappropriate incursions into public spaces, parks for example, aiming at their commodification, while cities, their neighbourhoods particularly, have public spaces that are beyond the neoliberal gaze and are safeguarded through local participatory action.