THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC SPACE
For the past three years, OFFICE has curated a public lecture series titled - The Politics of Public Space. The first two iterations of the lecture series invited over twenty speakers to present in iconic yet contested public spaces throughout Melbourne. The speakers came from a range of fields: architecture, landscape architecture and planning, to law, criminology and public art.
The Lecture Series attempted to identify the true complexities of our city and the many parties involved, asking: How may we better engage and understand our city, particularly its public spaces?
This year OFFICE cut short the third lecture series, in light of the current global condition.
While the effects of the virus and subsequent restrictions in Australia were not as severe as other countries, holding public lectures in physical public spaces was impossible. This has posed a question as many of the public institutions and communities move online: What has this shift online revealed to us about the city and its public space? And what implications does this have on our interaction with the material city and daily life?
‘Where are the claims to the right to the city being made when publics, and the city dwellers become more and more separate? And what is the legitimacy of these claims if they are made in the digital street versus the material street?’’
- Myria Georgiou
Over the last two months, OFFICE streamed eight online lectures via Zoom conference calls to the digital public. Suddenly physical geographies were irrelevant as the curation of speakers came from major cities around the world.
As our physical urban lives became more and more restricted our ability to engage globally became a possibility. The twentieth century saw the advancement of the commercialisation and privatisation of a number of key spaces within our cities, as governments relied on the neoliberal market to be responsible for the allocation, maintenance and control of seemingly public spaces.
‘The algorithms of high-finance can engage just about anything in this mode; they can keep extracting from even the most unexpected things…(it) is transformed into a field of assets. This is an abuse of power and intelligence.’
- Saskia Sassen
This emerging typology has been given the unassuming acronym of POPS—Privately Owned Public Spaces. POPS is what now lays largely unoccupied. These spaces have not been abandoned, rather they have been yielded to a non-commercial occupation. The stores that line the plazas, the billboards that overshadow the squares and the leased marquee pitched in forecourts are no longer functioning as financial instruments.
There is a radical change in the way people are currently occupying public space which requires a moment of revaluation. While recent protest movements have brought issues of private ownership into focus, this period threatens a stoppage in the unending growth of the city-form and an opportunity to reveal how public some of these spaces actually are.
'We should ask whether or not they are public spaces at all? I’m not sure that they are, just because you name them that way doesn’t mean that they are.…Depictions of public space are almost always filled with people having nice meals in nice cafes. The public realm is a kind of alfresco extension of the restaurant.’
- Jack Self
Public space does not lie abandoned, commercial space lies abandoned. The last true public spaces in the city have been used more now than ever. Public parks, walking and running trails, creek reserves, the spaces that haven’t been absorbed by private capital into the commercial functioning of the city are being frequented now more than ever. It is these types of spaces that are essential for the health of the environment, the city and its inhabitants. This is currently being reaffirmed during the pandemic.
‘I had never connected individual health, my own, my friend's, my neighbour's, anybody's health, with public space. I had never seen a direct correlation until these last couple of months—when the streets and public squares emptied, everything you would do in a city is shut down… That direct intersection of health and the city was new to me.’
- Dong-Ping Wong
The pandemic is a point of rupture. This creates opportunities to reevaluate, reconfigure and rebuild in more ethical ways, and the talk of returning to normal is simply a distraction. This crisis has shown that it is possible to slow progress, to pause a global system that has been relatively uninterrupted for three decades, something we were told was impossible.
What will remain after this pandemic? Many of the answers to this question, passively draw on the recent past to construct this future. The implication is that the economic recovery requires us to restore many of the structures and systems that shaped this recent past. We would argue that many of these systems should be abandoned. It is critical for interventions to challenge this process of restoration. In the same way high-finance actors are inserted between consumer and producer, our demands should be inserted between public space and the actors in this restoration. What structures should be abstracted? Reconfigured? Repurposed? And how can designers intervene?
'You have to make evident what's invisible: the politics of development in your city, the politics of trading property, the politics of who owns the city. How many developers are in your city? Who are the powers behind what is happening? Where is the money going? Is it trickling down? We need that research, and that's why there is no significant office today that doesn't have a research arm. An architect without a social concept is just a builder.'
- Alfredo Brillembourg
Volume Two of The Politics of Public Space will be out late July 2020.
EDITORS NOTE : As Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced the six-week lockdown, our response to the pandemic went back to square one. Even though some shops decided to remain open, most of us have once again lost the opportunity to find leisure in public spaces. As privately owned public spaces (POPS) start to deteriorate, our concept of gathering shifts from cafes, bars and clubs to places that are truly public. Parks and gardens have become the most visited spots and many people have started to realise the significance these typologies have on their mental and physical health.
Without the distraction of heavily commercialised and privatised “public spaces”, we have gained an insight into what typologies are beneficial to our wellbeing. Through being compelled to remain indoors, we are able to position ourselves from a different perspective to analyse these spaces we have lost. “The Politics of Public Space”, this article, as well as a lecture series, and a new collection of essays (Late July 2020) by OFFICE dissects the effects of different types of public spaces in order to question how we design them to shape the future.