Article published in Barcelona Metròpolis, april-june 2011
THE PUBLIC SPACE DOES NOT EXIST
Every day, we hear and read more and more about the so-called public space. But how long has this idea existed as an inherent feature of the urban landscape and as the focus for all urban development projects, in the twofold sense of those based on urban design and urbanity? If we take a little time to ascertain the origins of the phrase with its modern meaning, it rapidly becomes apparent that the concept has become common currency over the last three decades. It is the basic ingredient in both the political discourse on the realization of the egalitarian principles attributed to nominally democratic systems, such as urban planning and architecture, which without any possible disconnection from these political assumptions, are focused on the classification and the subsequent codification of urban spaces that precede or accompany any built-up space. This is especially true if they are the result of restoration, theming or regeneration of neighbourhoods or industrial areas considered obsolete and undergoing conversion.
As a political concept, the public space refers to the realm of peaceful and harmonious coexistence by all that is heterogeneous in society. This realm is assumed to create and affirm our opportunity to come together, without "falling over each other," as Hannah Arendt wrote with Habermas and Koselleck, one of the basic theoretical sources currently applied to the public space. This public space can be taken as the evidence that what allows us to create a society is that we agree on a series of programmatic assumptions within which our differences are overcome, without being completely neglected or denied, but instead defined separately, in the other realm that we call private. This public space is therefore identified as an area of and for free agreement between autonomous and emancipated individuals who experience it, in that they are part of it and together undergo a massive experience of disaffiliation.
In political parlance, the public sphere is therefore a construct in which each human being is recognized as such in relation to others and in terms of their relationship to others, with those to whom they are connected by reflexive agreements that are continually updated. This space is the institutional foundation on which the possibility of a democratic rationalization of politics is based, according to the ideal of a cultured society consisting of free and equal private individuals who establish a rational agreement among themselves, in the sense of making a public use of their powers of reason with a view to a pragmatic control of the truth. Hence the desire to regulate that affirms that the public space is a moral whole, shaped and determined by "what should be," which is the foundations for all kinds of social and political practices, which require that this framework is no longer merely categorial and also becomes a scenario for openness and existence. This proscenium in which the abstract public space becomes "flesh that dwells among us" cannot be anything else but the street, the square and all those places where there are individuals, who as they are often unequal, must learn to behave at all times as if they were merely different. Out there, in that generalised meeting place, is where the State must succeed in refuting, albeit momentarily, the asymmetrical nature of the social relations that it governs and that it serves, and reproducing the impossible dream of an equitable agreement in which it performs its integrative and mediating function.
The goal of making this mystical public space a reality means that any appropriation of a street or a square that is considered inappropriate is quickly neutralised, by violent means if necessary, but above all by disabling and then expelling those who dare to defy or deny the utopia, which is otherwise impossible, of a self-management based on civil consensus and a "good citizenship of coexistence." This applies to the entire relationship between urban planning and those who are urbanised, as what we called urbanity - a system of civic good practices - becomes the appropriate behavioural dimension for urban planning, which is in turn understood as what it truly is today: a mere appropriation of the city, its submission, by means of both planning and political management, to the territorial interests of the elites.
This materialised public space is assigned the strategic task of being the place where the egalitarian truth of nominally democratic systems is or should be confirmed, the place where rights of expression and assembly are exercised as forms of control over the authorities where those authorities can be challenged. What was once just a street or a square are now areas accessible to everyone, where continuous negotiations take place between human beings who have achieved the right to anonymity and who use different degrees of proximity and distance, but always on the basis of formal freedom and equal rights, all in an area which everyone can appropriate, but which they cannot claim as their own property; an official physical framework of the political as a transpersonal meeting point and an area subject to laws that should be a guarantee of equity. In other words: a place for mediation between society and the State - which means between sociability and citizenship - organised for the expression of the democratic principles that allow the free flow of initiatives, opinions and ideas.
But this public space does not exist. It is a dream, a myth, something that people write about or talk about, something that we are told is administered, but no one has ever seen it or will ever see it, at least in a capitalist society. The supposed places for friendly and cooperative encounters between equals rarely evade each person’s position in a social hierarchy that distributes and institutionalises social asymmetries based on class, age, gender, ethnicity, and "race." Some people who theoretically benefit from full citizenship are stripped of or publicly denied this equity, as a result of all types of stigma and neutralisations. These poor non-citizens - the so-called "immigrants" - are forced to hide or spend their time presenting their identification papers. What used to be a public life based on the adaptation between the relevant operational behaviors and widespread communication between generally abstract individuals - "citizens" – has been exposed time and again as an arena of and for the marking of certain individuals or groups, whose real or perceived identity puts them in a state of emergency that the public space does not free them from in the slightest. For them, this is a place of and for all types of vulnerabilities and violations.The discourse on the public space calls on us to turn a blind eye to this reality, to pretend that it does not exist, as in the street and the square there is only room for the irrefutable evidence of the end of a universal and happy middle class, alone with itself in a world without conflict and misery.
[Photography by John Fraissinet, johnfraissinet.smugmug.com/]