I spent the past five days in Halifax taking in what is quite possibly one of the most beautiful cities in North America. While I was enjoying myself on vacation, my mind repeatedly came back to a familiar theme - the question of public space. Much like when I first explored Ottawa in the spring of 2010, my trip to the East Coast was one that made me really reflect on the importance socially and politically of the public space in the modern city.
The idea of having spaces open to the public, often referred to as "the commons", is central to the conceptualisation of the urban centre. In fact, it has been a massive part of civic life historically across all cultures. The spaces can take numerous forms that range from parks, to squares, to boardwalks, to libraries, to municipal government buildings. What makes a space public is that in theory (and hopefully in practice) it is owned by the citizens, subsidised by tax dollars, and democratically operated.
These spaces have always been important for societies, and they are equally crucial at present. Public spaces are open for everyone, providing space for them to gather and interact. By virtue of being common areas, the state, which is the guardian and caretaker for the space, is to keep them clean, safe, and accessible. Moreover, neither religious nor corporate interest has authority on the land, allowing users of the space freedom from persecution.
Access to public space has dwindled over the past decade or so as it is deemed expensive to maintain. As the state has pulled out of responsibilities which are deemed unaffordable, public spaces have very quietly become private ones. The most shocking example of this is the famous Zuccotti Park in New York City. Part of Lower Manhattan, this park is what is called a privately-owned-public-space. These arrangements are truly scary. Masquerading as a place that is free for use by the people, the park is actually open to New Yorkers on special terms determined by the parks wealthy private owners. Ordinarily, this would be of little or no consequence; however, the Occupy Movement, which started in Zuccotti Park, was not legally able to be on this property as it is not a public space. However you feel about "radical" movements, consider for a second the parameters of a privately-owned-public-space. Activities that take place here are sanctioned by those heavily invested in the status quo. If they are afraid of what feminists, steel workers, or Muslims might do on their property, they have license to intervene.
Public place is supposed to be designed for the use of the people, but unfortunately a trend over the last few years in Canada is producing some devastating results. It's not only corporations that are taking away our free spaces; it's the part of the neoliberal state. In Canada, Harper has gradually introduced legislation that criminalises people who are excercising their rights to strike, demonstrate, and even assemble. Alternate viewpoints, such as anti-gloablisation, anti-capitalism, and anti-oppression, displayed at demonstrations such as the G-20 summit in Toronto, Occupy across North America, and most recently the Québec Student Movement, have been attacked in a brutal fashion. Politicians like Stephen Harper and Jean Charest have introduced new measures that are truly dangerous. Limiting the rights of people to assemble, demonstrate, or conceal their identity is somewhere between undemocratic and totalitarian. Regardless, it's absolutely frightening. What's worse: the average Canadian does not feel threatened by these moves and sits idly by as fellow citizens are stripped of fundamental rights.
Blaming the state is a relatively partial response. Pressures on government from capital are substantial and help to give a sense of what is acceptable assembly and what is not. It's evidently okay to mass for a soccer game or to pitch a tent in front of Best Buy before a new release. However, it is inappropriate to rally in the streets or to camp out in a public park. This image here does justice to this issue.
Of course the idea of the divide between private and public space is interesting when we are looking at the urban environment, but what about the digital context? I could not help thinking about this as a link to my last blog was removed from Facebook, and not out of my own volition. At first I was angry, but then I realised that I have no right to post whatever I want on a website. Facebook, or any other private enterprise, gets to decide what is posted on their pages - and their say is ultimately final. The reality as I see it, and that a shocking few understand, is that there is no public space on the internet. A web site, however well intentioned, is never owned by anything that even comes close to representing "the public". There is no appeal process through legal systems, there is no representation, and people hide behind anonymity in scathing personal attacks. The internet is not a democracy.
To conclude, the defense of the commons is a real battle at present. It will continue to be a struggle - one that is not helped by apathy on the part of the general public. I sincerely hope that those of you who read this take some time to reflect on what public space means to you.