The Enclosure of Non-Capitalist Uses of Public Space
Billy Schaefer (MAUD '18)
Image by Allen Ying
The increasing privatization of public space has become one of the leading topics of debate in contemporary cities. The adoption of neoliberal economic policies has left many city governments with shrinking budgets, and even global finance centers such as New York have found themselves strapped for cash. Austerity measures meant to reduce public spending have been compensated for by an increased dependency on the private market to provide civic amenities that residents have come to expect. Many have welcomed this new era of public-private partnerships, some going as far as advocating for the complete privatization of all public spaces. Proponents argue that the private market offers the optimal framework for the provision of services, and that left to its own devices, will lead to more efficiently run public spaces while also allowing for innovative approaches that can produce exciting and novel situations. Their detractors argue that the private market will, by the very nature of capitalism, inevitably exclude more vulnerable social groups (without political or financial power) from these spaces, leading to increased inequality in how different people experience their city.
However, both sides of this argument miss how inclusionary practices regarding public space can be used not just to facilitate equal opportunity, but also to encourage equalizing outcomes. Alvaro Sevilla-Buitrago’s 2013 analysis Central Park Against the Streets counterintuitively suggests that one of the most iconic ‘commons’ in the world was in fact conceived as one of its greatest enclosures. “The case of Central Park shows that institutional orderings of space can incorporate subtle, often unnoticed strategies of dispossession without privatization, using certain assemblages of public space to eradicate the practices underpinning autonomous appropriations thereof.” Rather than simply exclude increasingly unruly working-class visitors from their park, Vaux and Olmstead aimed to transform their behavior so that they would become worthy patrons of this elite urban amenity through assimilation. For behavioral transformation to occur at the scale they envisioned, the park had to be free of charge and as inclusive as possible, with plentiful access points that lured users in from the surrounding streets.
Today, the desire to dictate the terms on which expression occurs in public spaces is most clearly illustrated when we examine how municipalities treat some of these more extreme appropriations of their city. After what Sevilla calls “the extinction of the everyday cultures of autonomous street use,” non-violent illegal activities such as street skateboarding and graffiti writing remain as some of the last, lingering, unauthorized uses of the public realm. While these activities arguably spawned from dissatisfied youths in the city, municipal governments have again turned to enclosure as a means to quell this rebellious behavior. Instead of imposing fines or even jail sentences for these offences, especially prevalent during the ‘broken-windows’ era of policing, a more sophisticated approach has since been adopted that replicates these activities, albeit in controlled environments. Skateparks are becoming more prevalent than ever, providing safe designated spaces for skateboarding. While almost universally praised by city officials and many skaters themselves, these paternalistic spaces have the double-edged effect of preventing full interaction with the city for the skateboarders. Furthermore, by moving the skaters off of the streets and into designated parks, the urban experience for city dwellers is further sterilized.
Similarly, illegal graffiti has been increasingly stamped out while legally permitted murals and ‘street art’ take over. Small expressions of disaffected youth have given way to more easily digestible ‘safe’ images, now seen to increase property values in a neighborhood rather than blighting it. The same planners and designers that will invite internationally renowned street artists to brighten up their newly commissioned ‘arts district’ will simultaneously punish their own constituents for trying to do the same. Unsurprisingly, these sanctioned murals tend to offer combinations of pop imagery and colorful platitudes such as LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL or ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE, rather than addressing rampant social inequity, depression or dissatisfaction.
Public spaces have rarely been neutral grounds for diverse classes to come together; instead they are highly contested and are renegotiated daily. As former professional skateboarder Ocean Howell suggests in his 2001 essay The Poetics of Security, these unsanctioned appropriations “challenge observers to examine their preconceptions of what or who a city is for” and reintroduce conflict to increasingly sterile urban environments. Municipal governments have aligned their interests too closely with those of the private sector in homogenizing cultural and consumption patterns. We need to more closely examine the motives behind public spaces and be more open and flexible to different types of appropriation to ensure healthy, sustainable cities in the future.
- Howell, Ocean. The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design, and the New Public Space, published online at http://urbanpolicy.net/wpcontent/ uploads/2013/02/Howell_2001_Poetics-of-Security_NoPix.pdf , 2001.
- Sevilla-Buitrago, Alvaro. Central Park against the streets: the enclosure of public spacecultures in mid-nineteenth century New York, Social & Cultural Geography 15, 2, 2014, pp 151-171