New Definitions to Public Spaces

Appropriation and Re-Appropriation of Private Spaces

Hüma Şahin (MArch II ’19)

Presented at Urban Struggles in Mediterranean Cities: The Right to the City and the Common Space
International UnConference held at Athens, School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens
May 3 – June 3, 2018



…Publicness is a performative and incremental condition embodied in the hybrid physical-virtual environments of evolving societies. Publicness happens, taking on a performative aspect that is often lost when we focus too heavily on architectural space alone. Public space is always an appropriation of an existing space, a layering of a political space over legal space…

-        Adrian Blackwell, Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World, 2017

When architects and urban planners talk about creating democratic spaces, they fall into the trap of immediately talking about the spatial attributes of publicness. But the search for democracy in urban settings is not necessarily about the sole considerations of spatial phenomenona. In actuality, publicness goes beyond ownership and spatial attributes.

When talking about public spaces and democracy, the architectural space is just the tip of an iceberg. Patrick Geddes points out “The hope of the city lies outside of itself.”

Looking through the lens of democracy, the disappearance of the idea of the “public good” under neoliberalism has had concrete effects in the city.  In the early and mid-20thcentury government-funded parks and squares were broadly provided for all citizens as a disciplinary strategy of social management.

Political power often seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye on the control of restive populations. (Harvey, 2013) And while these reorganizations are clear in some cases, in other cases some numb the mind while others mesmerize the eyes of the people.


…Geographer Kanishka Goonewardena has made a powerful argument for the ideological nature of the capitalist city, claiming that the fully immersive sensory aesthetics of urban space make it a very powerful ideological tool. We simply cannot deny what we feel, and urban space is experienced with all our senses…

-        Adrian Blackwell, Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World, 2017

In this regard, public spaces acted as the opium of the people. With commonly used terms like liveliness, beauty, livability, the effects of the state and market regulated public spaces on the society is covered. As urban theoretician Alvaro Sevilla - Buitrago points out, state driven public spaces, like parks, are suggesting a different form of enclosure in the urban setting. Sevilla mentions that the park, in this case Central Park, is understood as an early stage in the project of imposing new social relations through the enclosure of public conduct and he designates the park as a first effort to “tame the urban commons and prevent the subaltern appropriation of public space.” (Sevilla, 2013)

On the other hand, public spaces have transformed into hubs of consumption. What can be seen in this period, is a restricting of spaces of public authority, from their Keynesian Fordist function as normalizing spaces designed to make all citizens into good capitalist consumers, to a new function of differentiation, in which certain segments of the population are more violently policed by the public authority, while others are lavish pseudo-public spaces, designed to encourage consumption practices. In the end,urban designs under neoliberalism, which claim to have produced more livable “public” spaces, have in fact produced geographies of inequality. (Blackwell, 2017)

The traditional definitions of public spaces are not sufficient to untie the knots in democratically suppressed cities. Rather than seeking the public spaces “assigned” with top-down decisions, one can think of re-appropriating private spaces to form them.


Challenging the urbanistic trend of an “apolitical domesticity”, new ways to define public spaces and publicness can be traced to house environments. This exploration of the house environment would bring “political domesticity” where true publicness is located in the house, the traditional hub of “privateness”. In searching for new ways to define public spaces, this investigation would find new sites for the representation for its people. These sites will be helpful in “spatializating", maintaining, and strengthening public interaction, which would otherwise be floating around the city in a nomadic form.

Moreover, these “hubs of privacy” can be perceived as a different form of cul-de-sacs and as an extension of a powerful non-space that denies any programmatic imposition, the street network.

Rather than seeking state and market driven public spaces which are in most cases manipulative and alienating, masquerading behind beauty masks and not helpful in triggering positive change in the society, re-appropriation of the private spaces should be considered.


1. Blackwell, Adrian. “Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World.” Public Space?: Lost and Found, by Gediminas Urbonas et al., SA P Press, MIT School of Architecture Planning, 2017, pp. 19–38.

2. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso, 2013, pp. 117.

3. Sevilla, “Central Park Against he Streets: The Enclosure of Public Space Cultures in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York”, 2013