How is space public? Implications for spatial policy and democracy

Parkinson, J.R.

Go to article

Parkinson, J. R. (2013). How is space public? Implications for spatial policy and democracy. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 31(4), 682–699.

Democracy , London , Private , Protest , Public , Space

Battles over public space involve conflicts of values that express themselves in planning policies as well as the built environment. However, the dominant conceptions of public space in planning practice and the academic literature support a limited range of those values. I argue that conceptions based on openness and accessibility play into a particular construction of public life that emphasises casual interactions and downplays purposive, political ones. Following a conceptual analysis of the public–private distinction, the paper offers a novel, threefold account of public space; argues that democracy requires a particular kind of publicness not recognised by the commonly accepted definition; and deploys a simple content analysis to highlight the conceptual emphases and absences in planning policy in the political heart of London. I argue that some advocates of public space are unwittingly supporting restrictive planning and design practices that limit important kinds of democratic expression.

Main finding
The author provides an expanded description of public space that avoids the public-private binary and includes a democratic, political account of the public with: 1) openly accessible space, and/or 2) space of common concern, and/or 3) space used for the performance of public roles. Examples of the third aspect include: performance through physical engagement (requiring certain design elements), narrating political issues, and making public claims. Making public claims requires both that the public is paying attention and that the setting is accommodating by being large, open, uncluttered, and near the dignified space for public claim making. The central claim of this paper is that the standard academic definition of public space does not provide a strong enough normative foundation on which to build an effective challenge by those who would open up such spaces for more direct political engagement.

Description of method used in the article
Content analysis was conducted on three planning documents to assess the absence of democratic values from most key decisions about the city's public spaces that claim to be democratic. Simple coding frames with grounded and theory driven elements were used.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Other or N/A
Content analysis
Political science
Physical types
Geographic locations