Waves of protests around the world have raised new political and urban questions regarding the ownership and use of public space. In recent decades, the social and political value of assemblies and protests has increased exponentially due to an escalating frequency coupled with higher visibility via global news and social media platforms. In democratic societies the right to assemble and protest is a basic urban right, but what happens when the city takes that right away? In New York City many public spaces are privately owned, in Berlin they are constantly contested, and in Cairo they are designed to limit community use. The public sphere is becoming increasingly virtual and physical public spaces are more often than not built or repurposed for commerce and tourism. This thesis investigates the importance of available public spaces for political and social use. To this end, the relationship between the public space and protest is observed through actual protests in public space, including protests for the preservation of public space itself.
I started my research with the idea that architects and urbanists could and in fact should design specific public spaces for protests. I based this idea on the observation that protests were increasing around the world while spaces available for them were diminishing. However, the cases studies I used for my research suggested a different tack – that in fact, protests can be even more powerful and effective when people appropriate existing public spaces. Whether they do so out of necessity, because there are no other spaces available, or because they prefer to give meaning to a historic site, or because a site is in proximity to a locale important to their agenda, being able to determine the location and use of public space empowers a group’s right to the city, creating discourse in the proper context and setting and giving the people the ability to impact the meaning of a space.
For this research I focused on three main case studies in which democracy was practiced in a public space: The 2011 Egyptian Revolution, The Occupy Wall Street Movement, and the citizens initiatives Mediaspree Versenken and 100% Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin.
The Egyptian Revolution with its occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo offered the most interesting contradictions. It is not a democracy, nor does it have a public space. Therefore the understanding of public in this case didn’t depend on ownership — the square is owned and governed by the state. With the pro-democracy protests and occupation of Tahrir Square, Cairenes changed the narrative of the public space. Cairene protestors did not have available to them a “perfect” space for protest, however, they created a democratic space which resisted an authoritarian regime simply by occupying it. In fact, Max Page argues that under authoritarian governments protests can be successful only if they defy the regime by occupying the space that is usually denied or if they occupy it in a way that transforms the place’s meaning. For me, this case also begged the question of whether the establishment of democratic space by people under authoritarian regimes could be spark a future democracy.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, with its occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City, brought discourse about privately owned public spaces (POPS) into the public space realm. Zuccotti Park is a POPS and OWS raised questions about its ownership, management, purpose, use, and access. It made the most sense for OWS to create a new territory in the Financial District and in this case I was surprised to learn that the only/best place for a political protest to happen in a democratic country – in NYC no less – was on a privately owned public space.
Berlin was my third case study. Throughout its history, Berlin’s public spaces have been fought over and its citizens to this day remain politically engaged. Moreover, with an ever changing economy and a fast gentrification process, Berlin’s public spaces are still being fought over. In general, Berlin has many public spaces which are given to the people to use freely or which people have taken for personal gain (even if, after appropriating the space for their own uses, they might be taken away). The Mediaspree Versinken! and 100% Tempelhofer Feld citizens iniciative instigated wide protests and citizens initiatives which eventually led to a referendum where Berliners could voice their disapproval of these projects. Their success stalled or stopped these developments and they currently use most of those spaces as they wish. How long these victories will last remains to bee seen, but people successfully influenced the decision making process at the city level.
The history of public space rests on Greek ideology and is synonymous with democratic practice but it seems every generation re-interprets it. In addition, urbanization, modern technologies, globalization and a market economy (among other things), have changed cities fundmentally and therefore have also changed the concept of its public spaces.
Seeking to fix a definition of public space often led to confusion because ideas about it are often too varied or abstract. Though in the end I found her to be too reductive, some initial clarity was found in the work of
Fran Tonkiss because she offered concrete examples of what public spaces were. Her approach is what I believe to be the closest to the layman’s perception of what public space is and I would agree with Edward Robbins who wrote that Tonkiss’ divide of public space brings more about more questions than answers.
Looking at other normative definitions of what public space and the public sphere is, I came to the conclusion that a too strict or universal definition of public space was problematic. The Public, in a democratic society, is dependent on the people. Thus, as Fokdal surmised, a space’s conception is naturally always in flux. Because of this, the definition has to be flexible and it is the people who should have the ability to redefine it as necessary. It is not necessary then, as I first thought, for a space to be designed for protest as a space’s ambiguity is what allows people to project their vision on to it. In fact ambiguity was a recurring theme in the texts i have presented.
Indeed, with a marked rise in protests all over the world, the existence of a public spaces as places where democratic practice can be furthered has become more crucial. Even though it might be argued that virtual space and digital infrastructures have challenged the importance of physical space for political discourse and protest, people still affect the most awareness and change by occupying the city’s most vital physical spaces–their public spaces. As history shows, when the city limits, either by denying public space or by imposing rules restricting what can be done on it, they in effect take away the right to freely and peacefully assemble. I hold that it is a democratic imperative that unrestricted public spaces be available for practicing democracy and that these spaces do not need to be specifically placed or designed. In fact the ambiguous and flexible quality of public space is what gives it infinite potential, as Henri Lefehvre and Jane Jacobs wrote over half a century ago.