Public Space
in the Time of Shrinkage

Vol. 8, No. 1 (September 2003)    



New York
  The Threats to Publicly Usable Space in a Time of Contraction


des Vortrages


The issues surrounding the nature and use of “public space” – and indeed its very definition – are complex. This paper attempts merely to set forth systematically the issues that are involved, and list the public policies that might address them. The analysis proceeds under the following headings:

I. What principles define what is “public space?

II. What are the uses appropriate to public space?

III. What are the possible variations in ownership and control of public space?

IV. How is public space threatened today?

V. What can architects/planners do to counter those threats?

To begin with, “public space” for most policy purposes cannot be delimited simply to that space that is publicly owned. Ownership is itself a complex category, and in this paper I use publicly usable, rather than publicly owned, as the relevant category for analysis. All space is “public; issues are only around the uses of space. I use “publicly owned” as instrumentally equivalent to “state, or “government owned. But otherwise the term public is much broader. But then what does owned mean? Controlled. But all space is subject to public control. Operationally, the public (state) has decided to limit its control in favor of private interests in many cases; so publicly owned means not surrendered to private use. The point is clearer in a feudal economy, in which all space was owned by the king and rights of use were defined in terms of reciprocal obligations to the king and those holding under him. The same is true, if we consider monarchy only one possible form of the state, in a capitalist economy, only somewhat less directly.

That space which is considered most private, in which private ownership is the legal basis of use, prototypically the private house, the “home that is a man’s castle”, can only exist as and to the extent that laws, publicly adopted, protect it and establish what rights its owner has – what the attributes of private ownership are.

I have made this argument at length in an examination of ownership rights under socialism,[1] arguing that they differ in content from those under capitalism, but reflect not an absence of private ownership but simply a different form of it.

In practice, what is publicly protected as the  most private is determined by laws relating to trespass, to privacy, to security of tenure, to land use regulation, all of which determine what practical real uses can be made of “private” space. Generally considered at the other extreme is publicly owned land: streets, squares, public buildings such as city halls and post offices. But the border line between this and private property is not so clear; border line cases, with some attributes of public and some of private, include:

·               Post offices, if not run directly by government

·               Airports

·               Market places

·               Concessions in parks

·               Railroad stations

·               Public agency offices in privately owned buildings

·               Hospitals

·               Pedestrian zones managed by business improvement districts (BIDs, in United States usage).

All seen as public uses, the provision of which can be privately supplied by contract with the public, or located in privately owned property. Important, thus, is not the formality of legal “ownership”, but the nature of the use: hence “publicly usable space”.



I.                    The Publicness of Publicly Used Space

The five principles that define what public space is may be summarized as follows:


The Five Principles of Publicly Usable Space:

1.      Equity in distribution of resources

2.      Accessibility

3.      Non-exclusionary access

4.      Aesthetic quality

5.      Environmental sustainability

The issue of equity raises the concern that such space be in practice equally attractive, equally usable in fact, by all groups in society, in proportion to their needs. Whether a public park, for instance, is designed for badminton players or basketball players affects who will use it; whether picnic tables are provided, or only flower beds; playgrounds, or only benches, etc., likewise are issues of social equity. Open space at Battery Park City explicitly took these concerns into account.
Accessibility raises the question of location: is inaccessible “public” space really in any sense “public”, perhaps with the exception of space whose direct use is specifically desired for environmental purposes, e.g. environmentally fragile areas, water sheds of public water reservoirs.
Non-discriminatory control is vital. The exclusion from use of public space of any group reduces its character, its publicness. The long United States experience with segregation, both in places publicly owned and in places of public accommodation (so: publicly used spaces) is testimony to its importance.
Aesthetic quality can influence the extent to which a space is attractive for public use, and can decide for whom it is attractive.



II.                  The Uses of Publicly Used Spaces

Publicly used space may be used in many different ways, each with its own role to play in urban life. The uses may be summarized in the following table.


The Eight Uses of Public Spaces

1.                  Organized democratic activity

2.                  Political communication

3.                  Symbolism

4.                  Sociability/diversity

5.                  Recreation

6.                  Environmental protection

7.                  Promotion of Efficient Urban Uses

8.                  Promotion of Efficient Economic Uses


1. Public space is often seen as a key locus for the interaction that make up a democracy. The classical model is of course the Greek Agora. Contemporary examples are legion: the Plaja de Major in Buenos Aires, Hyde Park in London, the Washington Mall for countless demonstrations, before the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz in Berlin, occasionally less open spaces such as the Convention Center in New York City, certainly Times Square there. In medieval times, such democratic uses typified a central theme in urban life: Stadtluft macht frei, precisely for such democratic interchange. Habermas makes free and equal communication, symbolically represented by exchanges in public spaces, central to his conception of democratic life.

2. Unorganized or spontaneous communication is another aspect of the democratic character of public space. Such interactions occur throughout urban life: in market places, malls, train stations, coffee shops. These are often privately owned in law, but fall in the category termed “place of public accomodation” in United States law, and are subject to key public controls, e.g. against discrimination, and in many cases against interference with freedoms of speech and assembly under the constitution.[2]

3. Public spaces often have symbolic meaning for a group or a community, even if the space is not directly “used”. The memorial discussion around ground zero at the site of the World Trade Center is an example. Stalinallee in the German Democratic Republic and of course numerous baroque plazas and boulevards are others; Speer’s Great Axis in Berlin would have been one such. Much of the discussions around issues of historical preservation involve such symbolism.

4. Probably the most widely recognized use of public pace is simply for mixing, for encountering others, thus for promoting both sociability and diversity. Streets are the classic example, but public transportation has the same function: the crowded New York subways, for instance, promote an acknowledgment of strangers, of difference, hard to match elsewhere. Public festivals and festival sites are another example. How deep such interaction goes is a disputed question, and undoubtedly depends in significant part on the design of the space and its facilities: is a common activity (shopping, fishing, being entertained) involved, etc. [3]

5. Recreational uses are associated with what may be one of the most space-extensive forms of public space: parks and recreational areas.

6. Public ownership and control often serves an environmental function, from the protection of clean air to water quality in watershed areas to the preservation of forests or unique ecosystems, or fragile areas.

7. Streets, squares, various transportation facilities, serve directly the interests of economic and social efficiency: transporting people and goods, providing necessary infrastructure for daily life and business activities.

8. The promotion of economic activity is not the same as serving economic efficiency. It may involve the allocation of public space to provide sites for job creation, for promoting particular branches of commerce, for reducing or increasing density of occupation. The purchase and resale by government of private property, in various schemes of urban redevelopment, creates what might be called interim public space in this way.



III.                Ownership Forms of Publicly Used Space


The possible combinations of legal forms of ownership, use, and control are legion, but might be summarized as shown in the following table:


The Six Possible Forms of Ownership of Publicly Used Space:

1.      Public ownership, public use

2.      Public ownership, administrative use

3.      Public ownership, private use

4.      Private ownership, public function, public use

5.      Private ownership, private function, public use

6.   Private ownership, private use


Each pattern can also vary according to the level of public investment/subsidy and legal restriction, so that the categories are not divided by hard and fast lines, but rather continuous on a spectrum. Examples of each are not hard to find:

·          Public ownership, public use : streets, public parks, public buildings

·          Public ownership, administrative use: city halls, agency offices, police stations.

·          Public ownership, delegated private administration of use :  airports, post offices in some countries, park concessions, sidewalk cafes

·          Private ownership, public function, public use:, gated communities, to some extent shopping malls, BIDs, Celebration. Private Hospitals, private schools

·          Private ownership, private function, public use: places of public accommodation, restaurant, cafes, private bus stations, recreation centers, megaprojects like Battery Park City or Potsdamer Platz, places spoken of as “taking over the functions of downtowns”.

·          Private ownership, private use: prototypically, the  home. But even here, some aspects may be at least semi-pubic: facades, sidewalks, corridors, driveways.



IV.               The Threats to Public Space


The varying uses of public space are not frozen or inviolate. Indeed, in many of its uses, the perception that both the quantity and the quality of public space is diminishing is warranted. The threats to the publicness of public space may be listed as follows:


The Seven Threats to Public Space:

1.                 Dynamics of urban change

2.                 Fiscal pressures from urban change

3.                 Ideological pressures

4.                 Extension of Social Control

5.                 Privatization

6.                 Architectural / Planning Errors


1. Dynamics of urban change

Life is dynamic, and needs and preferences and modes of life change with time. There are two types of changes: those inevitable (if to varying degrees) with changes in technology, often agonistic in the sense that they do not come about because one group has obtained advantages over another; and antagonistic changes, arising from changes in power relations or social organization. Examples of agonistic changes might include:

·          shrinking population, main theme here

·          urban life is always changing, and public space needs to conform

·          streetcars are replaced by buses, boccia by soccer, classical music by Spanish music, hamburger stands by pizza; roller blades are in, roller skates are out; East River Park picnicers vs. ball players

·          accessibility changes: need of parking spaces where formerly streetcars went, a standard problem for planners and architects, as long as  principles governing public use aren’t violated.

Examples of antagonistic changes include

·          deindustrialization in some regions

·          uneven development of industrialization in others

·          gentrification and displacement of one income group by another

·          changing patterns of immigration, neighborhood change, segregation

·          changes in patterns of income distribution

·          manipulated changes in patterns of real estate values.


2. Fiscal pressures from urban change

The acquisition and maintenance of public space in public use requires public resources, specifically public financial outlays, not only to buy and expand, but to maintain and protect and adapt to changing demands and uses. Especially in periods of financial stringency, but often also at other times, decisions on public budgetary matters will influence the extent and use of public space.

Examples: New York City: if we invest park funds in the World Trade Center site, we deprive Central Park and neighborhood parks of needed funds for maintenance and improvement. How such budgetary decisions are made can lead to violating equity principles or (more rarely) to reinforcing them.


3. Ideological pressures

Many decisions in the public sector  are made for ideological reasons, reasons of political principle unrelated to examination of concrete issues and alternatives. Today, in particular, neoliberal principles, belief in small government, commitment to low taxes under all circumstances, influence many governmental decisions. In the United States, decisions of the national Bush administration seem to be frequently made on such grounds, including decisions as to maintenance and use of national forests and national parks, infrastructure investment etc.

Contraction is not only in the demand for publicly usable space, but also in the fiscal pressures that treats publicly owned space as an asset in a commercial sense, and sees its sale or rental as a source of revenues for the public.

Security pressures – or what is done in the name of security, often to implement a pre-existing political agenda to enhance the American government’s control, both internationally and nationally, influences how publicly usable public space actually is. This can reach to the level of paranoia, as some proposals for security at airports and railroad stations seem to suggest. For Pennsylvania Station in New York City, for instance, there is now a “Rail Security Program which includes increased policing, new K-9 bomb teams, sensors to detect chemical, biological, and radioactive materials, Explosive Trace Detection devices that scan the air for traces of bomb materials, bomb-resistant trash cans, intrusion alarms, and vehicle barricades” – and Senator Schumer of New York  wants $450 million more to be spent on expanded security measures.


4. Extension of social control

Some – how much is a controversial issue –
of the measures taken in the purported interests of security are in fact better understood as measures of social control, and have particularly impact on the use of public space. In the Times square area of New York City, for instance, perhaps the single best known public space in the city, there are now over a thousand video cameras recording, often on a round-the-clock basis, everyone on the street and everything they are doing. Sometimes control measures have a very direct political impact.

Thus marchers against the United States’ war against Iraq were not permitted to use public streets or plazas near the United Nation building in February 2003, out of “security concerns”. The apparent unwillingness of the German government to build the Bürgerforum as part of the government center in Berlin, and the declaration of a Bannmeile around the buildings, is at least in part similarly motivated.


5. Privatization

Privatization restricts the availability of public space directly. Most obviously, this is the result of the outright sale of public property for private uses. This has been a major problem in most of the states in which state socialist governments had earlier expanded the scope of public holdings, but it is also true in the United States, where fiscal pressures or ideological convictions have been used to effectuate the sale, often to the highest bidder, of publicly owned property. The most recent example in
New York City has been the sale of Community Gardens, gardens developed by neighborhood groups on vacant city-owned lots, to private developers for private construction.


6. Architectural / Planning Errors

Architects and planners have sometimes contributed to the erosion of the public uses of public spaces. The design of plazas unattractive for public use has been extensively documented, e.g. by William Whyte. Putting “public” gardens at the top of skyscrapers, as several of the designs for development of the World Trade Center site proposed, is hardly likely to make them easily accessible to large numbers of people. But the private development can also have a major impact on the erosion of the public uses of pubic space; the whole wave of mall developments, for instance, certainly contributes to the decline of the much more public areas of downtowns all over the developed world. So does the reconstitution of public spaces to protect surrounding business interests or drive out the homeless, as was the case with the redesign of Bryant Park and the role of many BIDs in New York City.


Whether these developments can  be blamed primarily on architects or planners, or whether they are simply following the instructions and catering to the wishes of those  who retain them, is an open question.




V.                 Options for Action by Architects and Planners


Much of what threatens the publicness of publicly used spaces is beyond the control of architects and planners, and is either not a matter of design and planning or decisions as to design and planning are out of the hands of architects and planners. But options do exist. They may be summarized as follows:


The Five Things Architects/Planners Can Do:

1.                  Aesthetic and effective design

2.                  Adherence to the principles of publicness

3.                  Acceptance of the inevitability of change

4.                  Rejection of the inevitability of threats

5.                  Recognition of the political character of the threats


In more detail:

1. Aesthetic and effective design
Design can of course make a difference in the use of public space.  Plazas inviting to use, open spaces accessibly located, provision of facilities promoting public use, all matter. Very often, however, designs are problematic not because of the incompetence of the professional, but of the mandates of the program the professional is given to work with. Responsible and ethically aware professionals can challenge programs as well as propose designs, and the profession itself can intervene in problematic situations to defend the publicness of public spaces.

2. Adherence to the principles of public space
A central issue here is the recognition that distributional and equity issues are almost certainly involved in any design or redesign of public space: who is likely to use it is heavily influenced by its design. Often the issue will be one of balancing priorities among conflicting uses: basketball courts or tennis fields, baroque vistas or active uses, provision for expensive restaurants or fast food offerings, dog runs or playgrounds, will all influence use. When hot dog vendors are prohibited in aesthetically award-winning public spaces such as the waterfront at Battery Park City, professionals should prominently raise concerns. The question: for whom? Is one that needs to be raised much more frequently in public by professionals, if the principles of public space are to be recognized.

3. Acceptance of the inevitability of change
Changes are inevitable in the demands for public space, as outlined above. There are values in historical continuity; insistence on it as the sole criteria for design has other consequences, however, against which it must be weighed.  Professionals can make their voices heard in establishing a fair balance.


4. Rejection of the inevitability of undesired change
By the same token, not all changes are inevitable, and the ability to distinguish those that indeed cannot be challenged – the impact changes in transportation technology, for instance – from those that can – deterioration of public and rail transportation, for instance – is vital both in program development and design. Much too often changes that a professional would rather not see happen are taken as inevitable, undebatable, when in fact professionals in the design and planning field could play a significant role in avoiding them. Thus, the primacy of financial institutions as a motor of the economy of New York City, or the need of each city to compete with every other city for more convention centers etc., are issues in the debates around which professionals should lay a major role.

5. Recognition of the political character of the threats
And that leads to the final point: that decisions as to the publicness of public spaces are basically political decisions, and architects and planners must be willing to get their hands dirty in political debates if they are to be true to their professional and ethical obligations. Thus many schools are putting emphasis in their curricula on courses in the politics of planning, in issues of social justice in design, on the ethical obligations of their professions. The sphere of the constitution of public space, the preservation of the publicness that makes cities the centers of culture and democracy around the world, is one in which the importance of such political considerations can hardly be under-estimated.

[1] Marcuse, Peter. 1996. “Privatization and its Discontents: Property Rights in Land and Housing in Eastern Europe.” in Andrusz, Gregory, Michael Harloe and Ivan Szelenyi, eds. Cities After Socialism: Urban and Regional Change and Conflict in Post-Socialist Societies. London: Blackwell.

[2] The cases here are legion, beginning with Justice Blacks landmark decision on leafletting in a company town in Alabama.

[3] William Whyte’s analysis of the design of public plazas is suggestive of the role of physical design.



Vol. 8, No. 1 (September 2003)