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The death of public space.

The death of public space.

Markus Appenzeller

A public space is generally open and accessible to people is how Wikipedia defines public space. Based on this basic definition, different societies have developed their own understanding of public space. Culture, religion, politics and social and economic consideration have been the forces that shaped the public realm. This has led to amazing squares, streets, parks or embankments all over the world.

In the past decades, however, one can observe a change in the balance of power of the different forces. Public space has become a victim of the neoliberal market economy agenda. Today, many public spaces are not public anymore. They only pretend to be public and generally open. Once someone wants to sit in these fake public spaces, make music or even sleep on the ground, private security will be quick in removing these people, citing the terms of use for the space. Public has become a marketing trick, an attempt to appear open and inviting – but only at one’s own terms. Cities with their limited budgets generally have been welcoming these additions to their network of spaces that can be navigated on foot. It allowed them to expand the (not so) public realm at no investment and no maintenance cost. In turn, property owners and operators were given the possibility to maximise the economic potential of the street frontages of their plots.

There are very nice and very successful examples of private publicly looking spaces and some have become big success stories in their respective cities – from Xientiendi in Shanghai across Artplay in Moscow, the ‘Koopgoot’ in Rotterdam, Potsdamer Platz in Berlin or the various plazas that dot Manhattan and provide a place of rest and calm in the bustling traffic. Even though them appearing everywhere, these private public spaces were not a huge problem since their size still is relatively small compared to the overall quantity of public realm and the most important and most active civic spaces in cities firmly were kept in the hand of the public.

Covid19 is changing that radically. In an attempt to revive the suffering restaurants and cafes, many cities allow these businesses to expand their terraces and use more of the public space. Especially in the main squares of cities that often have many of these outlets, they cover the whole space and privatise it. Existing benches are incorporated into one’s own terrace design. Public planters become the decoration of the restaurant terrace. Access is only allowed if one obeys the health and safety rules and if one consumes. Public space has become extinct in these locations and the meeting place of social groups, lifestyles and activities they used to be had to make space for a predictable and socially segregated activity – the price level of the menu and the willingness to eat and drink from now on defines who can be there. Public allows for purposeless being in a place, the new use doesn’t.

But it is not only that main spaces where commercial activity renders public extinct, public is also extinct in the spaces elsewhere. Distancing rules and limitations of the amount of people congregating have emptied normal streets and parks. Public space needs a public to be public. With the public gone, its publicness also is at risk. Why do we need public space if nobody is there anyway one might ask? Space without the public, without the eyes on the street also is in grave danger to become the playground for those who want to establish a parallel regime of control next to public order – gangs, drug dealers or other groups with criminal or semi-legal agenda’s. That in mind, local politics and police respond by sending in more patrol forces and by placing high tech surveillance systems. In doing so they further deteriorate the genuine freedom that public space needs to be public and instead turn it into a fake public space in a similar way private enterprise do.

I think the only chance we have is to defend our public space. Not by ignoring distance rules or by harassing local restaurants but by putting our eyes on the street. An evening walk after a long home office day not only is a contribution to one’s health but also to the public space staying public. And as soon as rules are eased, flocking back to restaurants terraces helps the owners recovering from the pandemic so they do not need to claim public space anymore. And once this is over, we need to fight back any attempt to compromise public space. If more space is wanted as privatized space outside, then this has to go at the expense of cars or it has to take place on private ground.

by Markus Appenzeller.

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