There’s a lot of talk about public space, especially in urban centres. In Toronto there are whole movements dedicated to using it, preserving it and creating more of it – more parks, sidewalks, markets, waterfronts, and civic centres. Many see public space as a fundamental pillar of democracy, particularly at the local level where grassroots community organization can impact politics to a greater degree than at the national level.
A lot of these campaigns are led by the young and largely propertyless, often leftists, renters or students. Case in point: the authors of the Project for Public Spaces website ranked the 20 best neighbourhoods in North America in their “Great Public Spaces” section. Of course, I looked for Toronto and wasn’t surprised to find Kensington Market – somewhere I personally find not “one of the most vibrant places in Toronto” but a sketchy and slightly smelly collection of ramshackle shops – coming in at 8th place. Hardly Rockefeller Plaza. And the local counsellors who support the cause are on the political left too, even considering municipal politics in Toronto slants quite heavily that way to in general.
I wonder if the leftist slant of public space advocacy is because the availability of public space is more important to those who don’t have/want private spaces of their own. With the opportunity to own a tiny condo or one-room loft, concern for public space for general use seems to decline. It’s more appealing, perhaps, to be able to control one’s environment, despite the costs. And the clamouring for public space grows ever quieter as the students move from starter lofts to semi-detached homes with lawns, commutes, and bigger environmental footprints.
There is definitely, therefore, a generational aspect to the use of, and maybe even need for, public space. Private space is increasingly necessary in raising a family or seeking financial security. And the kinds of activities that occur in public spaces – socializing, meeting new people, and acting on common interests – move further into the realm of private space as we grow older and tend to seek out the same friends, colleagues, or associations we’ve had for years. More private space makes our worlds more insular.
In part this trend is due to the decline of public-private spaces that in the past would encourage intergenerational socializing. Consider that in the Victorian era, a huge amount of time was spent at semi-private dances, in gentlemen’s clubs, or in church, all of which are areas that have fewer and fewer members each year. Like never before, space has been divided up into “privatopias,” whether owned by individuals or corporations, and access to these tightly controlled by invitation only.
It is also increasingly commercialized, something urban studies scholars have been writing about for ages. Whereas 200+ years ago town squares, public parks, and fairs abounded, today the majority of “public space” has a commercial bent, such as restaurants, arenas, nightclubs, and shops. Starbucks, renowned for its marketing campaign to make its cafes the “third space,” in the end really only wants you to buy their lattes and frou-frou yogurt cups. And the best example of the commercialized space, and one of the most popular “public” spaces for youth, is the mall. What is more likely to incite consumerism than a collection of stores, kiosks and food courts? There is much more of an incentive to do something (usually buy something) within public spaces today, whereas in the past the only thing one was expected to do was socialize.
It is perhaps not surprising then, given the generational divide in the use of public space and how increasingly partitioned it is into commercial zones, that young advocates of public space have turned to a generally no-cost option for interaction: the Internet. The most abundant public space today is the virtual kind. Spaces like chat rooms in the early days, and later Facebook, MySpace and YouTube were revolutionary because they allowed large groups to get together to exchange news, form communities, and interact in real time. And they’ve since gone one better and added the advantage of collaboration outside of real time that allows group affiliations without having to all be present in the same place at the same time, through “walls,” posts and message boards visible to everyone. The Internet seems to be the solution to the ever-declining amount of physical public space: no governments need to be lobbied or protests staged; no corporations need to be fought for land; and the degree of commercialization is smaller, with relatively unobtrusive ads (so far).
But what is lost without physical space? True, there will be no “guerrilla gardening” online (except, perhaps, in other people’s FarmVilles). And it is easy to argue that virtual space is less accessible – to the underprivileged and those who can’t easily navigate the Internet – than its physical equivalent. It is also vulnerable to the same kinds of privatization that threaten space in the outside world, through access controls or commercialization.
But the potential for grassroots activism is surely greater, since the Internet is vast and largely unpoliced, unlike physical spaces. I wonder, will declining physical public space affect the quality of democracy for good or ill? It is perhaps a truism after even the short time facebook has been around that people are more likely to support a cause by joining a group than leaving the house to protest something. And joining facebook groups is no doubt less effective than voting for a local politician who can actually effect change. But the far-flung and ever-present nature of virtual public space carries advantages here too: people are perhaps even more likely to find out about something because the exchange of information is even more rapid than before, and isn’t immediately lost the way it would be in a physical gathering.
The challenge, then, is bringing the activism and accessibility of the physical public space into the virtual world. Ideally, of course, the public space of the future will be a hybrid of the virtual and physical kind. Perhaps the use of each will inspire support for the other. But in the short term, I nominate facebook as one of the “great public spaces” of our time. I wonder what Habermas and the public space committee would say to that.