The Production of Public Space in Capitalist Cities

This paper is not an attempt to identify and analyze the processes through which public spaces across different urban contexts are produced and reproduced. However, we must nonetheless contextualize the discussion of just public space to follow with some consideration of how scholars have understood the broader processes that generate the kinds of conflict and debate over public space in which our paper seeks to intervene.

Capitalist globalization and the accompanying neoliberalization of urban governance are widely accused of exacerbating socio-spatial inequality within and between cities (e.g. Brenner et al. 2011). In the broader literature on urbanization, conflicts over public spaces have featured strongly as an empirical means for thinking through the transformations of urban everyday life associated with these broader structural changes. Indeed, as Soja (2010a: 45) pointed out:

For some the essential starting point in the search for spatial justice is the vigilant defense of public space against the forces of commodification, privatization, and state interference. Although seeking spatial justice should not be confined only to struggles over public space, such struggles are vital and can be extended in many different directions in the search for justice and the right to the city.

An ever-expanding body of literature has identified a range of processes that impact upon the accessibility of public spaces. For instance, the gentrification of urban neighborhoods is frequently accompanied by ‘cleaning up’ of urban public spaces through state- and corporate-sponsored initiatives to displace the poor and fortify the privileged (Brash 2011; Houssay-Holzchuch and Teppo 2009; Mitchell 2003; Modan 2007; Staeheli and Mitchell 2008; Watson 2006). The growing significance of corporate actors in the governance of cities is frequently exemplified by the privatization and commodification of public space, where control of many public spaces is handed over to private interests and access is therefore more likely to depend upon private means (Low and Smith 2006; Miller 2007; Mitchell 2003; Ne meth 2010; Newman 2011). Here, examples include the international spread of governance models such as urban redevelopment authorities established at arm’s length from government and business improvement districts (BIDs), both of which tend to establish and enforce their own rules of access to public spaces beyond those that are democratically mandated through the state (Maniscalco 2015; Ward 2007).

Attempts to secure the city against the threat of ‘the other’ — be they the poor, migrants, young people or terrorists — are frequently achieved through the securitization and militarization of public space against those perceived to be different or disorderly. This has taken many forms, not least of which are: new policing strategies such as ‘zero tolerance’ targeting so-called ‘quality of life’ infractions in public spaces like graffiti, begging and loitering; the exponential growth of the private security industry with a more assertive role in the policing of public and ‘post-public’ spaces; the use of architecture and design to fortify public spaces and restrict a range of potential uses and users defined as threats; and introduction of new technologies of surveillance and control such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) (Fassin 2013; Iveson 2010; Lippert and Walby 2013; Maguire et al. 2014). Of course, such processes unfold in diverse ways, in diverse combinations, with diverse effects across diverse contexts. But in cities where they have taken hold to various degrees, a wide range of groups — not least the homeless, racialized minorities, the poor, informal traders and frequently the young — have found that their access to public space has become more fraught and less secure (Low et al. 2005). Importantly, not only are such processes uneven, they are also frequently contested.

The ongoing significance of public space for people’s participation in the social, cultural, economic and political life of the city is borne out by the intensity of efforts to contest some of the processes described above. Such contests take a range of forms, giving rise to diverse processes of politicization that seek to enact other forms of authority and sociality in urban public spaces (Iveson 2007; Juris 2012; Maharawal 2014; Peterson 2010). For example, through the actions of a range of contemporary social and political movements, occupations of public space have re-emerged as an important means for their politicization (Butler 2015; Davidson and Iveson 2014). Other processes for the politicization of public space in recent times include more conventional political protests and assemblies, the use of mobile media devices and social media platforms to document and contest the actions of authorities like the police in public space (Castells 2012; Gerbaudo 2012), and so-called ‘do-it-yourself’ micro-interventions to transform public space (Iveson 2013). Such politicizations of public space are central to the development of this paper. The tradition of justice-thinking that informs our paper looks directly to these struggles in order to tease out the principles and propositions that might inform broader formulations of justice. Before we offer our own propositions, we will now briefly survey the emerging literature on social and spatial justice in the city to identify some of the key principles that might be applied to debates about public space.

Social and Spatial Justice in the City: A Brief Review

With these changes in public space, clearer arguments are needed to justify the criteria by which urban spatial transformations can be considered unjust and provide a stronger juridical and political footing for public space activism and contestation. While the question of whether public space is ‘open to all’ frequently forms a foundation for criticism and action, simplistic renderings of the inclusion/exclusion are not up to this task. After all, certain kinds of exclusion may even be ‘just’ in some circumstances (Iveson 2003). We can develop a stronger juridical and political footing in dialogue with the considerable literature on the relationship between justice and urban life. This relationship has been interrogated from a number of different angles (see also Fincher and Iveson 2012). The encounter between empirical studies of the city and philosophical reflections on justice has been productive for urbanists and philosophers alike — although it is probably fair to say that while many urbanists have drawn on philosophically derived justice principles to inform their critiques of urbanization, only a few philosophers have drawn on studies of urbanization and urban politics to inform their thinking on the nature of justice.

For most philosophers concerned with the nature of justice, while the nature of city life may have held a passing interest for illustrative or evaluative purposes, it has not been either a primary concern or an integral part of their theory-building. That is to say, the attempt to generate universaljustice principles has been mostly concerned to abstract from, rather than grapple with, the specific spatial configurations of the ‘social’ to which ‘justice’ relates. Perhaps one notable exception to this observation is Iris Marion Young, whose work on justice and the politics of difference over several decades explicitly engaged with the nature of urban life and politics (see Young 1990, 1999, 2001). For Young, the very possibility of group difference without oppression was embodied in both the ideal of city life and in the expression of group differences in the distinct cultures of diverse urban neighborhoods.

Of course, regardless of whether or not philosophers of justice have explicitly engaged with the urban, their work has been taken up by a range of thinkers who have sought to evaluate the justice of various urban formations and policies. Theories of justice and rights have been drawn upon to address the concerns of planners, government agents, elected officials and other policymakers. Addressing their practical concerns is essential because without clear articulation of what we are striving for, and some measure of accountability, it is difficult to struggle effectively.

David Harvey’s (1973) early work in Social Justice and the City, for instance, offered a set of ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ formulations of urban social justice that explicitly drew upon Rawlsian and Marxian frameworks, respectively. His later revisions of that early work drew upon Young, whose work had sought to dismantle some of the core elements of the Rawlsian approach (Harvey 1973). Leonie Sandercock’s (1997: 127) vision of the ideal city or ‘cosmopolis’ in which “there is acceptance of, connection with, and respect and space for ‘the stranger’, the possibility of working together on matters of common destiny and forging new hybrid cultures and urban projects and ways of living”, also drew heavily on Young’s work on both the nature of oppression and the importance of group difference.

Susan Fainstein’s (2000, 2005) ‘just city’ formulation draws on different philosophical underpinnings. She focuses in particular on Lefebvre’s (1991) ‘right to the city’ and Nussbaum’s (2000) set of capabilities — democracy, equity, diversity, growth and sustainability — that are necessary for the full development of the individual in a just society. Fainstein discusses the inevitable trade-offs among these capabilities and questions whether a focus on diversity obscures economic structure. Ultimately, she argues for a distributive theory of justice that is substantive and material. The strength of her argument is that it moves urban planning from a normative to a visionary framework and asks under “what conditions can conscious human activity produce a better city for all citizens” within the constraints of a global capitalist political economy (Fainstein 2005: 121).

Also drawing on Lefebvre among others, Edward Soja (2010a) offers a more fundamentally spatial approach to justice, mobilizing the term ‘spatial justice’ to emphasize his core claim that justice and injustice are constituted geographically through the production of space. He argues that justice has a geography and that the equitable distribution of resources, services and access to those resources and services is a basic human right. For Soja (2010a: 20), the concept of justice obtains a much broader meaning as the quality of being just or fair... It links the active notion of seeking justice to other broad concepts referring to the qualities of a just society: freedom, liberty equality, democracy, civil rights.

He suggests that struggles over space and the right to the city spatially is an integral part of coalition building. Unjust geographies, in Soja’s analysis, are the way that people experience the negative effects of an unjust society (see also Soja 2010b, 2011).

In our own previous work, we have sought to contribute to these discussions about justice and the city. We draw attention to that work here because, while we have drawn on different philosophical traditions and empirical studies to arrive at our conclusions, there is considerable overlap in the conclusions we have reached. The extent (and limits) of that overlap has provoked us to synthesize and extend our work as it applies to public space in this paper. In particular, our previous work has insisted on the need for an analysis of social and spatial diversity to inform theories of urban social and spatial justice, in distinction to those theories that continue to prioritize matters of redistribution and wealth over other unjust hierarchies and forms of inequality.

Ruth Fincher and Kurt Iveson (2008) approach the question of urban social justice by thinking through the different kinds of diversity that characterize urban life, and their implications for rights to the city. They proceed by defining three kinds of intersecting diversities that have implications for justice: differences in wealth, status and hybridity (the range of possible identities available to any one group). Their work is informed by an engagement with a number of philosophers of justice, including Axel Honneth’s (2004) and Young’s (1999, 2001) work on recognition, and Nancy Fraser’s (1990) work on the important connections between recognition and redistribution in achieving the ultimate goal of‘parity of participation’. Their analysis of intersecting diversities and injustices frames three planning goals for more just cities: (1) redistribution of space, services and facilities to address inequalities of wealth; (2) recognition of identities that are systematically devalued in unjust status hierarchies; and (3) the provision of opportunities for people to break free of fixed identities through encounters with diverse people and practices.

Setha Low’s work on social justice in public space derives from ethnographic research on urban parks, plazas and gated communities (Low 2003; Low and Smith 2006; Low et al. 2005), the normative just city as proposed by Fainstein (2005), and her ethnography-based critique of Fainstein’s contention that diversity should not be at the center of a social justice analysis of public space (Low 2013). Similar to Peter Marcuse (2006, 2009) who wants to go beyond a distributive theory of justice and concentrate instead on the dimensions of solidarity and difference, Low argues that redistributive solutions alone do not result in fairness in everyday life. Much closer to the formulation of Fincher and Iveson (2008), but developed from the social and organizational psychology literature, she offers three dimensions of justice — distributive (redistribution), procedural (recognition) and interactional (encounter) — that she believes are essential to address the multiple kinds of unfairness, injustice and indignities that people suffer in public space. Because these processes have broad purchase, other theorists’ conceptualizations including Honneth’s (2004) recognition and dignity, Fraser’s (1990) ‘parity of participation’ and Andy Merrifield’s (2013) notion of encounter can be subsumed within these dimensions, adding nuance and layers of political practices to their psychological derivation.

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