Public space is generally defined as a common and accessible space that is open to all people free of cost. These spaces are usually outdoors—the plazas, sidewalks, streets, and parks—and have a potential for social cohesion (Gehl).
This definition of public space, one that embraces social heterogeneity, is often more an ideal than a reality. For the urbanist Henri Lefebvre, in his book The Production of Space (1974), public space (and all space) is socially produced by a dynamic ever-changing network of unequal powers and contentious controls. In other words, public space is not simply neutral, physical places as they may seem, but rather a battle between the inclusion or exclusion of certain subjects, activities, economies and histories, and affecting the visibility of these (for example, the negotiation between activists using a plaza for a protest and a restaurant owner wanting to use the same space to place tables and chairs for business) (Rancière, Mitchell). This inclusion/exclusion can be bureaucratic (norms, municipal ordinances), physical (fences, police officers, video cameras, ledges with spikes), symbolic (stereotypes, feelings, glances, memories), and always determined by social identities (ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, political ideology, etc.) and, increasingly, the marketable value of the local space, the subject and his/her public activity.
In addition, public space is an autodidactic place of collective and personal learning where we learn about difference, the past, citizenship, ethics, and identity—who we were, are, should be, and could be.
With the imposition of neoliberalism as the dominating economic and urban planning model in the 1980s, cities around the world started to experience a gradual increase in the privatization and surveillance of public space, especially in neighborhoods of high economic marketability, for instance, financial centers, tourist areas, and upper-class residential neighborhoods.
While public space is regulated legally by a local municipal administration, an unlimited number of other types of informal spaces exist, unofficial and non-institutional and lesser-known, for example, abandoned lots or industrial buildings, urban gardens, self-governed spaces, and centros sociales [independent cultural centers], common in Western European and Latin American cities. In these latter cases, public space can be experienced and produced as the “commons.” In other words, it is voluntarily governed by a non-profit group of people—democratically and horizontally—in order to keep it open for everyone. This type of self-governed space is usually in a vulnerable situation since it is often not legal and, frequently, it is in a negotiation process with the local city council in hopes of obtaining legal status.
Finally, a current and increasingly predominant phenomenon, is that the concept of “public space” is transcending the material and physical realm as we can see with online commons, digital discussion boards, some social media, Wikipedia, and P2P networks.
Bibliography Balibrea, Mari Paz. The Global Cultural Capital: Address the Citizen and Producing the City in Barcelona. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Gehl, Jan. Cities for People. Island Press, 2010. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso, 2012. Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Blackwell, 1991. Mitchell, Don. “Metaphors to Live By: Landscapes as Systems of Social Reproduction.” Cultural Studies: An Anthology. Eds. Michael Ryan and Hanna Musiol. Blackwell Publishers, 2008. 101-123.Rancière, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.