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Private, Public, or Common: Who Owns Space?

Reposted from Occupy Vancouver Voice, authored by Stephen Collis,  originally published on: 08 December 2011

What happens when we share public space, when we meet randomly in public? If we are lucky—if we are not too busy, too rushed, too turned in on our “own shit”—we regard each other. At some level, we “see” each other, and recognize each other—as human. Maybe “people watching” is judgmental (“just look at this guy…who’d dress like that?”). But it can also shift, unpredictably, instantly, as we loiter in some public space, into recognition of the otherness of the other, the humanness of the other, the legitimacy of the other and our responsibility to the other (we exchange a smile or nod; a knowing look, having both just observed the same absurd thing; we see that we are both human, both unavoidably here, almost nakedly so). We find each other in public. We realize our multiplicity in public. The eyes have it. The face. We are all in this together, to a certain, primary extent. The planet’s spinning somewhere uncertain, and here we are together. Now what?

It is clear that—as far as the state is concerned—certain activities are permissible in public space, certain others are not. Commercial activities, “public” celebrations of sporting events, civic holidays and holiday traditions—these are to varying degrees allowable. Camping overnight to be first in line for a sale is permissible. Camping overnight to assert democratic and charter rights…not so much.

The problem is, in part at least, this: what we think of as “public” space is, paradoxically, entirely privatized. Our “public” spaces are owned—either by private enterprises that provide them via development agreements with the city in question, or they are “owned” by the city in question, which exerts the right to determine the terms and extent of their use. “Public” spaces have security guards who monitor and intervene. What we are missing, now, is a truly public space, a free and not-overly-administered space, which would be a common space—one neither publically nor privately owned, but truly and to the letter belonging to the commons.

These thoughts are prompted by a recent article in The New York Times by Michael Kimmelman, “Treasuring Urban Oases.” Kimmelman quotes architect Alexander Garvin:

“The streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community—the framework around which everything else grows…. The best public spaces encourage diverse urban experiences, from people watching to protesting, daydreaming to handball, eating, reading and sunbathing to strolling and snoozing”—we need to “first [think] about the shape of public space instead of private development.”

Garvin is reacting to a situation in New York whereby much seemingly “public” spaces are in fact privately owned—a haphazard add-on to private development worked out in agreement with the city in granting the original permit to build. The example that readily comes to mind in the current context is, of course, Zuccotti Park (an interesting side-note: the word “park” originally referred to a private game preserve which was owned by a nobleman—think Robin Hood getting in trouble for nicking the King’s deer).

A related project I have come across is “whOWNspace”:

“To address questions of ownership and use of open space in New York City, members of Not an Alternative, DSGN AGNC and DoTank: Brooklyn launched the project #whOWNSpace. Their stated intention is to reveal and question conflicting rules and ownerships of public space, advocate for and propose uses and designs in accordance with their Call to Action for the Rights of Neighborhoods, and to turn ideas and research into material action through intervention in urban space.”

I would be curious to see what we might find out here in Vancouver, if we took on a similar project.

Finally, I want to note part of Justice MacKenzie’s decision to evict Occupy Vancouver from the Vancouver Art Gallery lawn:

“The City says it would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not granted. Specifically, the public would suffer irreparable harm in terms of access to, and use of, public space.”

The city of Vancouver here places itself in the position of “the public” (as its “representative”), and argues that the use being made of this particular “public” space by Occupy Vancouver causes “irreparable harm” to other potential uses of the same space. First, the city is asserting it’s exclusive rights to decide what uses of “public” space are legitimate and what uses are not (thus acting as a private owner of the space), and second, the city is asserting that one use of public space is exclusive of other potential uses of such space (thereby employing a scarcity model—there’s not enough!—again, part and parcel of privatizing thought).

Without getting into a discussion about whether Occupy Vancouver was willing to “share” the VAG or not (it was), the point I take from all this is that what we think we mean by “public space” (free and open to all; the opposite of private property) doesn’t actually exist in our society—because even the supposedly “public” is policed and regulated by its “owner,” a governmental body supposedly representing the “public” at large, but ultimately acting in a proprietary fashion, much as any private property owner would. If real “public” space existed, we might be better off referring to it as “common space,” as a “commons.”

Common land, as a general term for land that is not conceived of as owned or even ownable (whether privately or publically), was the basis of many societies the world over for much of human existence. The commons was a space—it was most space in fact—upon which we relied to find what we needed to survive. Its “enclosure” (privatization), to take the example of English history (the despoilment of the America’s by European colonial powers is another ripe example), was part and parcel of separating the peasantry from their independent sustenance-based economy and making them available for wage labour, and their land available for commodity crops and private accumulation of wealth.

History lesson over. The point is that a “commons” is a space a population uses for satisfying its social needs; it is a space of collective independence; no one owns it, but ideally, all have use of it. The Occupy Movement has essentially been asserting a right to a new kind of commons—a political commons upon which all are invited to enter into the on-going democratic process of governing ourselves. We currently have no such space—our so-called “public” spaces are there only for leisure and temporary pleasures permitted by proprietary governments (and our governmental political spaces are increasingly the preserve only of the wealthy and privileged). In its critique of economic inequality and excessive privilege, in its concern for environmental degradation, and above all in its claim for a new public sphere, a new agora with a new (or renewed!) consensus based model of direct participatory democracy, the Occupy Movement might do nothing better than call for a new urban commons upon which to shape its future, and in the midst of which for people to meet each other as equals, face to face.

- Stephen Collis

6:13 pm in Big Picture, Commons, FoO Media by Stephen CollisTags: common space, non-ownership, public space, urban commons

2 responses to Private, Public, or Common: Who Owns Space?

  1. There would not be any “public” space if there were not also “private” space. As long as we frame the debate in the language of hierarchy, we tacitly accept the legitimacy of their “ownership.” We need new language like the “commons” to clearly indicate that we no longer accept the legitimacy of ownership, either privately or by the state. But, our new language also needs to acknowledge that the “commons” can not be owned. There is a fundamental identity between the common and community of living beings that occupy it. To divide it into public and private is to break the social connectivity that binds the commons together. This breaking of social connectivity – taking common space and making it public/private – is the same as the taking that occurs when the worker is separated from that which is produced.

  2. I agree Ed. I expanded this piece for a talk at the Vancouver Art Gallery here:
    I probably say more in that version about the commons and its relation to the false binary of public/private. Thanks


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