Public space design as class warfare: Urban design, the right to the city 'and the production of Clinton Square, Syracuse, NY

Van Deusen, R., Jr.

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Van Deusen, R., Jr. (2002). Public space design as class warfare: Urban design, the right to the city' and the production of Clinton Square, Syracuse, NY. GeoJournal, 58(2–3), 149–158.

Economic Development , Gentrification , Historic Preservation , Public Space , Urban Design

Urban designers and their design process remain largely outside the literature on public space. Either designers are cast as simple tools of capitalist social relations, producing exclusionary public spaces, or they figure as entrepreneurs that complement economic renewal schemes through beautification measures that bring business and jobs to the city. This paper analyzes both of these arguments, through an ethnographic analysis of the urban design process behind the redevelopment of a public square in Syracuse, NY. I argue that aesthetic considerations most often derive from economic and political pressures, pressures that draw upon the social contexts of urban designers within an international division of labor and their relationship to class struggle. Because public space serves such an important role in political and social life, its status as a product of urban design should therefore act as a crucial component in any discussion of rights to the city.

Main finding
The author argues that processes to redevelop Clinton Square suggest designers take an unsocial conceptualization of public space and only work with certain publics (e.g., excluding certain vendors and welcoming those who can pay). In short, economic development ignores social issues, giving designers the ability to transform public space with disregard for rights to the city and recognition of public space as business-centered. Designers are led more by strategies that reflect capitalist markets and the postmodern turn, whereby contextual and aesthetic concerns (e.g., limiting the square’s historical relevance to a narrow period in the late 19th century) outweigh social contexts. This relates to another transformation of public space—the privatization of it due to economic restructuring. In sum, the author found designers reproduced restrictions on right to the city and inequality through their interview responses and professional practices by considering social problems as separate, thus further alienating certain urban dwellers.

Description of method used in the article
A multitude of ethnographic methods were used in this study including field observations of the study site and surrounding public spaces and interviews with the chief designer and the deputy Commissioner of Parks. Additionally, one architecture and one landscape architecture graduate student were interviewed. The interviews included three parts: 1) education, training, and professional background, 2) the design process or questions about coursework and teaching, and 3) theoretical questions about public space and social justice. Lastly, the author broadly reviewed popular and legal literature about Clinton Square specifically. The author used four aspects, through the lens of rights, to measure how designers provide for or deny the public’s rights to access urban public space - struggle, exclusion, representation, justice. Analysis looked at how issues of exclusion and struggle both in the design process and finished square aligned, or didn’t, with interviewee responses, field observations, and the literature.

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Organising categories

Other or N/A
Archival / Historical Field Observations Interviews
Physical types
Geographic locations