Public Space Joanna Erbel
Public space, properly speaking, is a space accessible to everyone, a democratic arena where people of different ages, classes, genders, and races can meet and spend time together. This kind of space seems to be disappearing in postsocialist cities, which have been experiencing a process of rapid transformation since the early 1990s.1 If we wanted to find a common denominator to the changes these cities have been undergoing, the shrinking of public spaces would be one of them. More and more public areas are being replaced by the private spaces of gated communities or quasi-public spaces. Many of them, like shopping malls, seem to be open to all and present themselves as a better version of classical public spaces. Often supplied with benches and fountains as are regular parks, they ensure mild temperatures inside—irrespective of the weather outside—and provide additional distraction in the form of shops, concerts, and contests where you can win gifts, discount vouchers, or money. They look familiar and draw crowds of city dwellers, who find them more attractive than any other place.
The quasi-public spaces of shopping malls resemble public spaces but are governed by different rules. They produce a different type of users. In public spaces everyone can spend his or her time without having any specific purpose. In quasi-public spaces, spending time in a disinterested way is unwelcome. One can say that people spend their time in the same way in malls as they do in parks. At first glance, in both places they stroll or sit on benches and talk with friends. However, they do not read books, do crossword puzzles, or behave in any other way that is not openly connected with consuming. The surrounding space encourages consumption and even if a person is not doing so at any given moment, he or she is expected to buy something in the end. Obeying the rules here means consuming; in contrast, doing so in a public space means spending free time in a disinterested way in presence of other people.
This shift in how city dwellers spend their time and the growing popularity of shopping malls instead of noncommercial public spaces as places of leisure reflects a transformation of the notion of citizenship. There has been a change from citizens defined in terms of their participation in a political community to citizen-consumers defined in terms of their participation in a neoliberal economic system. Such citizens do not relate to each other, but to the anonymous neoliberal system. When they spend their time in a mall, they know that the justification of their right to be there derives from the amount of money necessary to buy any of the goods on offer—not simply the tacit agreement of people around them, as in a public space. To be in a quasi-public space, one must have some sort of interest or at least pretend to have one. One must be a consumer—or play one. Being just a citizen is not enough.
There would be nothing scandalous in the exclusive character of quasi-public commercial spaces—there have always been places with restricted access, like private clubs or closed parties—if they did not replace public spaces. However, the rising number and growing popularity of quasi-public spaces has strongly influenced life in postsocialist cities and the everyday habits of city dwellers. Not only are commercial spaces used by citizens as leisure spaces, but they are also conceived of as legitimized public spaces in the imagination of urban planners. This colonization of the imagination has influenced the structure of the city, where space is organized so as to fulfill the needs of the citizen-consumer, who is a more central point of reference for urban planners than any other type of city dweller.
This process is particularly apparent in cities where the transformation of the city tissue seems to have been driven by a hidden premise—namely, that public spaces should serve, so to speak, as the entrance hall to quasi-public spaces. The capitalist logic behind the revitalization of shabby public spaces turns them into hostile areas where no one would want to linger, not friendly places where everyone might feel welcome. In modernized postsocialist cities we can find many such places. In most cases they are the spaces between department stores, cafés, and high streets, free from people sitting around idly, dogs urinating, or anything else which might disrupt the image of an ideal, clean metropolis. Such public spaces have been reduced to inhospitable thoroughfares, granite deserts left behind as soon as possible by passers-by. They are designed not as areas where one can sit but as areas to be walked through. What the public space looks like and who uses it are not just issues relating to the city’s a esthetics—they touch the very core of the social order.
Universally accessible urban spaces still exist, but they are not used as meeting places anymore. They are open spaces but not, properly speaking, public spaces anymore. City dwellers go to commercial areas or stay in private apartments and houses. The declining quality of open spaces is reinforcing the process of individualization2 and the process of social exclusion3 as well. The quality of universally accessible spaces (often called “public spaces”) reflects the existing types of social relations. Such public spaces indicate the extent to which people are individualized, determine who may be present and visible and indicate who has been excluded from public discourse.
1 / See “Turbo Architecture” in this volume.
2 / See “Individualization” in this volume.
3 / See “Spatial Exclusion” in this volume.