The end of public space? People's Park, definitions of the public, and democracy

Mitchell, D.

Mitchell, D. (1995). The end of public space? People's Park, definitions of the public, and democracy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 108–133.

democracy , electronic space , homelessness , People's Park , political representation , public space , rights , social movements

The nature of public space in contemporary society is changing. This paper uses the turmoil over People's Park in Berkeley, California, as a means for exploring changing ideas about and practices in public space. I argue that as public space is increasingly privatized or otherwise brought under greater control, possibilities for democratic action are minimized. To make this claim, I provide a brief outline of the roots of the August 1991 riots at People's Park. I then examine the role that public space plays in modern democracies, and how ideas about public space have developed dialectically with definitions of who counts as "the public." In American democracy, "the public" is constituted by private individuals. In this paper, I suggest that the presence of homeless people in public spaces raises important contradictions at the heart of this definition of "the public." Many commentators suggest that these contradictions have led to "the end of public space" in contemporary cities, or at the very least, the removal of its political functions to the "space" of electronic communication. I examine what this move means for democratic action in the city and show that material public spaces remain a necessity for (particularly) oppositional political movements. This returns us to People's Park, as these were precisely the issues that structured the riots in 1991. I conclude the paper with a sketch of where People's Park and the issues raised by the riots now stand.

Main finding
From the 1969 riots to the 1991 riots in what became known as People's Park, the land owned by the University of California and the struggle over its use came to represent an ideological debate over the nature of public space. Activists and homeless persons protested redevelopment of the park, or what they saw as the end of a free space, providing the right for homeless persons to exist without harassment and for political activities to take place. The City of Berkeley and the university, on the other hand, wanted to create a space that provided opportunities for what they considered to be the majority of the community, and to limit the activities of homeless persons, drug dealers, and those who they did not consider to be legitimate members of the public. At the time of the article, the space had been partially redeveloped but some diversity of use remained.

Description of method used in the article
The author relies on analysis of newspaper articles and observations and photographs of the site.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories