Public Space Fedor Blaščák
What is the nature of a public space? Is it something bestowed objectively, or is it created subjectively? Is it an existing city space created by streets, squares, parks, and public buildings; or is it a space for the constantly updated activities of free individuals? Does public space exist for us directly and unproblematically, given that the streets, squares, etc., are already there, or is it something that we bring about by our coordinated activities, by the expending of effort on the foundation of shared interests?
We will look at the assumptions of these two points of view. We will try to find out what they have in common—that is, we will try to find a method that would connect them. One view considers public space to be objectively given, understanding it as something ready-made, something prepared for us by past and present generations of town planners, architects, builders, and municipal officers.
It is the space in the city where we move about. This view is derived from the assumption that public space is a system of places with a precisely defined urban functionality. However we may appropriate it, the issue of the public space remains for us an issue of urban operations, that is, an issue delegated to urban studies and managed by them. Such a view directs us to the local office of town planning and maybe the land registry. It is there that, according to the definition of individual areas, we ascertain which space is public, and what, according to the classification, is permissible and what is not in a given area. This view relates to the public space in the same way a map of the areas relates to the areas themselves. We call it instrumental.
In this case the quality of the public space is connected with the quality of the urban planning, the quality of the public architecture, the quality of the municipal communications, and with the measure of care expended on municipal green areas and the interior design of public buildings.
Movement through the city, however, is generally motivated by something—by observing other people, encountering some of them, and so on. This brings us to the idea of the purpose of the public space—if it is to be a mutual communication between people and a communication of people with their surroundings, which can mean anything from cleaning up a park on the periphery to mass demonstrations in the city’s center. Thus the formulated purpose will for us mean an expansion of the public space concept, which we originally reached by classifying in a specific way the municipal space that actually exists. Communication, that is, does not take place exclusively in the streets.
The Internet and the popularity of social networks indicate the need to expand the original classification of the public space by (optical) cable, computer, and public web domains. Another reason for expanding the concept of public space is the issue of how to understand the use of expressions such as “public discussion,” “public opinion,” and so on. Public discussion is an instrument for negotiating miscellaneous social questions and issues by a method in which no voice or opinion is ruled out in advance. What public space has in common is its accessibility to everyone. Does that mean that a public discussion can take place only in a public space such as we have delineated above? Certainly not. Public discussion cannot be limited only to what takes place in streets, squares, and so on. And moreover, if—on the basis of an instrumental look at the public space—we also consider an approach according to which public space is a system of places with exactly defined functionalities, then the assumption that any discussion and the exchange of ideas must have their own place in the list of permissible functions of squares begins to look strange.
The reasons for expanding the concept of public space become relevant for us when we expand our reflections on it by considering the purpose for which we created it. Our question will not be, “What is a public space?” but, “What is the public space for?” and, “What is the public space like?”
We do not look upon it as architects or town planners. Urbanism defines the public space (by the organization of buildings) and architecture portrays it (by the construction of buildings). It is not however able to create it. Why not? Because the public space is our common space. We create it the moment we take part in something that goes beyond us, that we do not control ourselves. Consequently, voluntary obligations between individuals, shared interests fulfilling our mutual relationships, are a presupposition of the expanded view of the public space. Our personal motivations on the basis of which we appear in public are important for us as direct participants and creators of the public space. The formal side—that is, where it actually happens—is not decisive and in the end not even interesting. The quality of the public space understood in this way is connected with the nature of the motivation to engage in it and with the measure of responsibility regarding the obligations that derive from this. So it no longer concerns only our movement in the city. It concerns our position vis-à-vis the interests of other people and our ability to convince other people of our own interests. A joint approach in their realization is the mark of the public space.
When Plato proposed to take children away from their mothers in the ideal state and entrust their upbringing to the hands of society, he made it clear that the interests of the whole are superior to the interests of the individual. Good social organization also had to include the instruments by which individuals could be raised outside the family. So, too, the presumption of stability, and it was indeed stability and the means to achieve it that were the main sources of Plato’s reflections on the state. The concept of freedom stood in the background as something manifesting itself in the course of certain activities that become real only if they are seen, if they are appraised, and chiefly, if they are remembered. Some sort of “public freedom” thus came into consideration—something created by people for other people, a tangible reality of the common world, free space as the result of a common effort rather than some sort of individually innate ability or gift. In classical times the presence of other people was an inevitable condition of the life of a free person. The origin and existence of the Greek agora is an expression of this concept of freedom.
Plato’s theoretical model of the ordering of society did not catch on. But the agora did. As a space for the struggle for political power it augured, opposite to the philosopher’s wish, more unpredictability than stability. In inquiring about the nature of the public space we can learn from the failure of Plato’s proposal for a constitution. The public space is originally neutral, and that is why it is able to absorb all the possible personal initiatives and interests we carry into it. The idea that the public space requires an exact system of rules created on the basis of higher or eternal or some other kind of values is always sure to lead in due course to its restriction and refutation. Plato (as did many after him) adopted an authoritative attitude vis-à-vis the public space, just as an architect or town planner does when considering the real space in which the city is to originate. He designed it, determined it, and defined it.
“Now we are left with a world without urbanism, only architecture, ever more architecture,” Rem Koolhaas wrote in his 1994 essay “What Ever Happened to Urbanism?” So as urbanism fails in building cities, the social engineer similarly fails when he intervenes in the public space. He fails because its originally neutral nature will never please him sufficiently for him to be reconciled with it. On what does this neutrality rely? On the absence of an external authority, which would decide what people can and cannot do. All that is needed for a public space to emerge is for people to show—spontaneously or deliberately—that they themselves are able to decide on some common approach. The public space is an open space. The absence of an external authority and controls on entry into a public space, however, do have certain consequences.
First, responsibility for it is borne exclusively by the participants in the public space. The standpoint of an individual is only one of the loci of the public space. There is no privileged point of view that would give the whole of the public space some sort of meaning. The public space is like an orchestra with an arbitrary number of musicians playing by arbitrary rules on arbitrary instruments. Without a conductor.
Secondly, our knowledge of the content of the public space is limited to what we ourselves may want to be actively involved in. It applies to the public space that we do not understand what we do not know how to (co)create.
Thirdly, the nature of the aim and how the participants intend to achieve it is decisive in the matter of whether or not—by its being held—the public space will expand, whether it will cultivate what already exists or destroy it.
To conclude, my question is: how can the public space originate through the realization of personal interests? In answering, I shall summarize the clues I have left strewn in the text. The public space originates and exists thanks to the determination of individuals to put their energies into projects held in common with other people, in spite of the risk of failure. They become engaged in something over which they themselves cannot have complete control. And even if they do not reach their aim, the results they achieve in the public space create a residue. This means that someone else can reach the given aim in the future, or someone else can use this as a basis to initiate their own aim. I think this is the real reason why people do it. They know that the public space is a common, open, and precious space.
Fedor Blaščák, “Spoločný, voľný, vzácny,” Anthropos 14: časopis pre humanitné a sociálne poznanie (2–2007), p. 36–40.