Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
It's time to have a serious debate about what we really want from our public spaces
Governments are trying to figure out what to do with the Occupy movement that’s moved into public spaces in major cities all over the world. Some have figured out only as much as getting them out of there; mayors from Oakland to New York have evoked concerns about public safety, sanitation, and good old law and order to justify forced evictions of campsites. And as we saw with the recent pepper spraying incident at UC Davis, the clash between the users of public space and the stewards of public space has underscored a startling disconnect. Whatever the response, the fact that these protests have persisted for weeks and months in parks has put a spotlight on public spaces in general. But that fact has also complicated the response. These spaces are part of our cities so they can be used by the public. They’re also explicitly not intended to play campground for extended amounts of time. But when the public chooses to use its public space in ways it wasn’t intended to be used, who’s right? The public or the public space? This seems to be a core if under-appreciated debate overarching these occupations nationwide and worldwide. Whether it knows it or not, the Occupy movement is actually calling for an entirely new kind of public space.
The crux of the problem is that public space doesn’t always mean what we think it does. We look at the protests and the encampments and we see the public asserting its constitutional rights to gather. We – the movement, the city officials, the proponents, the opponents, and even the indifferent observers – see the parks and public spaces of these protests as the appropriate setting. That’s what these places are for, we presume. But the public spaces we’re looking at should be more appropriately defined as publicly accessible places subject to the rules of its owner, the government, which we, in theory and by a sometimes seemingly distant extension, control. Public means us, but it also means the government, and in the case of our public spaces, the two spheres in that Venn diagram have a nearly complete overlap. We are free to use these spaces, almost as we please, under certain circumstances.
Many have looked on the Occupy movement as participation in democracy – petitioning, rallying together, working within the definitions of our own system of government to express frustration and desire for change. But within the camp environment, a different form of democracy is playing out. Sure, there are the bureaucratic similarities of committees and focus groups and the voting and seconding. But there’s also a sort of emergent democracy, one that’s growing and adapting to the open-ended nature of the movement. In the same way the echo of the human microphone developed in Zuccotti Park after amplification was prohibited, it seems clear a new form of public space needs develop to fit the need and circumstance of the moment. Of any moment.
Where this movement has been incredibly successful is in starting a conversation and getting people thinking about the large financial systems so entrenched in our society. A huge part of the movement is arguably about planting that seed and spreading the message. But there’s also the other part of the movement that sincerely wants to bring about dramatic change to the system.
If we look at the movement as a discussion about public space, both of those parts are also there. The occupation of the space draws the attention to the role of public space in our society, but its legally inappropriate usage of the space is calling out for dramatic changes to the ways space can be used by the public as it so demands.
There is no blank slate autonomous public space. But maybe that’s what we need: a space empty, unowned and ungoverned but by the public that chooses to use it as needed or desired. Stripping the governmental public of its stewardship, this public space would exist under the watch of the public of people. Those people – whoever they are and in whatever numbers arise – could decide that this public space should be a place to express disfavor with the financial system, or they could decide that it should be used by homeless people as a campsite. Or it could host a rave or a parade. It could be a gathering place or showcase for the concerns and triumphs of a given city or community or neighborhood, uses which would develop organically, and prosper or be replaced as needed or desired by the public. Petitioning the government would become petitioning ourselves.
Admittedly idealist and utopian, this new form of public space would also be a new form of citymaking, one that embraces the continually changing nature of a city and its people. A space like this would act as a thermometer of the ideological or political fever within a community, flexible and nimble and as open to change as to good ideas. As opposed to a park that’s built for a specific type of interaction with space, this new public space would be able to play host to the variety of desires and intentions the public may have.
This demand for a new type of public space hasn’t been explicitly stated by the occupiers or by their opponents but rather by the entire situation, from 360 degrees. Cities still aren’t sure what to do with the movement’s campsites because they’ve challenged the accepted concept of using public space. It seems we all know they can’t be doing this in parks, but can’t they? Shouldn’t they be able to? For now, within our current system, the answer is no, or sometimes maybe, but not forever. Creating this new sort of truly public space may be just as insurmountable a challenge as dramatically changing the world financial system. But like the Occupy movement’s call to rethink the way that system works, this may be a mechanism to change the way we think about what we as a public want and need from our public spaces, and what exactly public should mean.
Photo credit: Stephen Lam / Reuters