Independence Day On The 4th Of July Public Event Description Essay


Here is the question:

1. Identify a public event or development that you might say is a defining element of your/our lifetime. Describe how you see this event/development and why it is so significant. Consider how it conveys “difficult knowledge” and/or “lovely knowledge”

2. Consider how this event/development has unified and/or divided people. Are there divergent ways in which it is understood? Is it important to some and not to others?

3. In their essay, Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton state that “Memory-workers have begun to explore other modes, including attempts to kindle social aspirations like empathy, identification, cross-cultural dialogue , to recognize multiple perspectives, or to catalyze action.” Taking on the role of a memory-worker, describe an approach you envision as a way of teaching about or introducing others to this event/development.

Answer these three questions in maximum two pages and double spaced

Curating Difficult
Violent Pasts in Public Places
Edited by
Erica Lehrer
Cynthia E. Milton
Monica Eileen Patterson
Introduction: Witnesses to
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton
What happens when the invisible is made visible, when knowledge relegated to society’s margins or swept under its carpet is suddenly inserted
into the public domain? The iconic images of German civilians forced
to view the newly liberated Nazi camps, standing at the edges of hastily
dug trenches full of emaciated bodies are emblematic of an era in which
we have faced not only previously unimaginable episodes of mass violence, but have been consternated by how we might engage with these
pasts: who should look, at what, how, and to what end? There is an
enduring sense that reluctant publics must be forced to confront horrific realities with which we may be somehow complicit—if only in our
desire not to really know.
Yet in an age saturated with media images of human suffering and
ever-democratizing technologies for their dissemination, simply making people face the horrors humans are capable of perpetrating seems
to have lost some of its galvanizing force. The much-repeated mantra
“Never Again” has transmuted into a resigned recognition of the potential for “ever again.” In this context, a shift of focus can be discerned
among memory-workers, away from the inevitably stymieing preoccupation with the graphic, the incomprehensible, the unrepresentable. It
has been made depressingly clear that depictions of humanity’s vilest
deeds do not diminish our capacity for future crimes. If knowledge of
the facts of atrocity is no longer seen as a panacea, neither is confrontation the sole communicative posture of endeavours to leverage the past
in the present. Memory-workers have begun to explore other modes,
including attempts to kindle social aspirations like empathy, identification, cross-cultural dialogue, to recognize multiple perspectives, or to
catalyze action.
2 Introduction
In the early 1990s in newly post-communist Eastern Europe, the
power of public deployment of historical images to re-shape public consciousness was brought home through simple yet compelling initiatives.
In May 1990 in Prague, a row of kiosks lined Wenceslas Square, plastered with images and documents about World War II, the 1952 Slánský
show trial, and the 1968 Prague Spring. Any “difficult knowledge” of
these devastating, generation-defining events (in this case meaning any
knowledge beyond “the party line”) had been removed from public
circulation for decades. As Praguers awoke and wandered toward the
kiosks in the pale morning light, they clustered in excitement, discussing their feelings and the implications of these new public revelations.
Thus, a silenced history resurfaced.1
In 1996 the Polish exhibit And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish
Jews was a tour-de-force of memory curation and activation, a photography exhibit whose participatory process of creation was as powerful
and provocative as the final product.2 Compiled from a nationwide call
for “photographs of Jews,” the resulting 9000 pre-Holocaust images
evoked a lost world. But its greater power lay in the countless moments
of discovery and witnessing that must have occurred as thousands of
Poles opened dusty boxes, unsealed yellowed envelopes, paged through
old albums with a fresh eye, phoned aged relatives to ask after unknown
names or faces—and the dinner-table conversations and late-evening
soul-searching that one can only imagine ensued. The notes mailed
in by participants along with the outpouring of photographs offer a
glimpse of the textures of remembering: When the Germans came and
the Jews had to go into hiding, Lejzer’s son came a few times for hot tea. We
would cry to think how cold they were. / Throughout the occupation, I worked
in the Zawiercie steel-works. To clean the machines, we used clothing from the
liquidated ghetto. This photo was among the remains.3
Halfway across the world in Latin America another wave of difficult
transitions was taking place. Southern Cone countries experimented
with truth commissions of various sorts as a means of excavating their
authoritarian pasts, accompanied by creative public pathways to consider
and debate these histories (Bilbija et al., 2005). In 2003, Peruvians were
invited to a dilapidated home on the outskirts of Lima to view photographs—made by photojournalists, members of a social photography
workshop, families, and others—of “the faces of suffering, the visible proof
of the injustices committed” during the previous two decades of internal
conflict (Lerner Febres, 2004: 136–7). The exhibit, called “Yuyanapaq,”
the Quechua term for “to remember/remembering/to wake up/waking
up,” was a multi-sensory experience: the derelict structure housing the
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 3
exhibit embodied the ruined nation; the need for reconstruction from
the ground up spoke wordlessly through its physical fissures. The photos,
ranging from small, intimate frames to larger than life, were set off by
diaphanous drapes conveying both transparency and healing gauze. The
curators made their objective clear: “To look, to understand, to process
by way of images and testimonies implies a concern of Peruvian society
to know the history of what happened. In this sense, the decision to walk
through this house requires a decision to remember.”4
As scholars working in post-Holocaust, post-communist Eastern Europe
and post-authoritarian Latin America respectively, our own encounters
with these potent attempts to re-frame and activate the past anew led us
to the present project: a wide-ranging consideration of the goals and challenges, the possibility and the pitfalls, of “curating difficult knowledge.”
Curating difficult knowledge
Unique challenges arise in attempts to frame memories and documents
of violence for public display, and these have inspired innovations in
exhibition, museology, public cultural interventions and the activation of memorial sites. And new knowledge emerges when we consider
memory—in its spatial, material, public dimensions—not simply as
latent in the social fabric, nor only in top-down efforts by the state to
encode preferred memory, but also as it is mindfully deployed by individuals and groups in attempts to provoke, enable, and transform. We
call, then, for an understanding of museums, monuments, and heritage
sites not only as texts that visitors read, but also as sites of practice that
are social, embodied, and generative. Such sites spur dialogues in familiar forms like contemplation and discussion, but memory and meaning
are also made and contested through commodification, graffiti, and
Accordingly, this volume attempts to open a space at the intersection
of multiple discussions. We are convinced that some of the most interesting perspectives on memory work are emerging on the borders where
academic and other spheres of cultural practice meet: the museum, the
memorial site, the heritage tour. We draw on academic literature and
public discussion of critical museology, heritage management, collective
memory, public scholarship, and transitional justice, as common themes
swirl beneath these domains and the disciplines that engage them. We
ask where we are—as scholars, curators, artists, activists—in our imperfect
attempts to “bear witness” to conflicts that have passed, even as their
echoes, or in some cases the structures that gave rise to them, persist.
4 Introduction
Questioning curation
Taking the word “curate” in its root meaning of “caring for” allows
us to expand our discussion outward from museums and exhibitions
to encompass heritage sites, memorials, and other (including virtual)
locations along the increasingly interlinked spectrum of spaces dedicated to connecting publics with difficult histories—anywhere that
attempts are made to “[present] combinations of images, objects, text,
and sound within a particular mise-en-scene,” as Roger Simon puts it
(this volume). This is to say that to “care for” the past is to make something of it, to place and order it in a meaningful way in the present
rather than to abandon it. But how does one “care for” the past? What
custodial or curatorial practices and decisions are involved? How do
we—as scholars, curators, artists, activists, survivors, descendents, and
other stakeholders—attempt to bear witness, to give space and shape to
absent people, objects and cultures, to present violent conflict without
perpetuating its logic? These are among the challenges confronting
those who wish to invoke the difficult past in order to quell—or do
justice to—its hauntings.
Thinking about curation not only as selection, design, and interpretation, but as care-taking—as a kind of intimate, intersubjective, interrelational obligation—raises key ethical questions relevant in an age of
“truth-telling”: What is our responsibility to stories of suffering that we
inherit? When do they need to be protected and nurtured, and when
might the new truths they give rise to themselves become ossified, calling for “tough love” to re-activate their ethical potential? Is the goal
of curation to settle, or rather to unsettle established meanings of past
events? Is it to create social space for a shared experience of looking,
listening, and talking, creating alternative relationships and publics, for
constructive meaning making and action taking? How can we manage
the tensions among these impulses? And shadowing all of these questions is the ever-present need to ask which “we” is inquiring, deciding,
acting—and on whose behalf.
The notion of curation as “care” is meant neither prescriptively nor
timidly. Rather, we use it expansively to draw attention to the profound
senses of obligation the authors in this volume express to deal with the
past where it impinges painfully on the present. Such a “custodial”
understanding of curatorial practice simultaneously avoids some of
the presumptions embedded in discourses of heritage management
that refer to “dark tourism” destined for sites of “difficulty,” “pain,”
or “shame.” While suggestive, such frames can be limiting as they risk
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 5
presuming affective states and meanings a priori, as if these flowed predetermined from landscapes or displays, rather than being borne, projected, and negotiated by visitors individually and socially, in terms of
culture, ethics, and politics. Often swept up willy-nilly in such negative
rubrics are memory practices that, if one scratches their surfaces, may be
revealed as neither “dark” nor “tourism.” While visits to sites of former
atrocity raise concerns about voyeurism and crass commercialism, they
may just as often draw people earnestly seeking to meditate on peace,
imagine common futures, and even forge these through dialogue or
political action. Our interest is thus less in charting a historical moment
of fascination with atrocity than in examining the conceptual strides
and challenges presented by this moment’s accompanying innovations
in curatorial practice. We are concerned with approaches, ethics, and
intentions—in short, with cultural projects—that animate attempts to
draw attention to painful pasts.
“New museology” is now a few decades old, and in the throes of
further transformation as it meets still newer critical curatorial voices
(Macdonald, 2006; Karp et al., 2007). The present museological moment
is one of democratization not just of access, but also of authority. There
are ever more rationales for—and an expanding corpus of experiments
around—breaking down the mono-vocal, authoritative, objectivist,
material-centric framework of exhibiting culture that has defined
museology since its consolidation as a branch of science and a tool
for refining the citizenry a century ago. Classically styled museums
are still decidedly celebratory, affirming national triumphs and distinct group identities. But museums are increasingly turning to face
our communities’ “never agains,” and discussions of difficult subjects
have been key drivers of innovative curatorial theory and practice.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett proposes the category of “museums of
conscience,” which reflect the intersection of the current museological
moment with a shift in commemorative practice to include scrutiny of
both the ignominious sides of national histories and the museum’s own
previous practices in relation to these (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2002).5
Paul Williams notes that it is the high stakes associated with the topics
and content of memorial museums, and the drama these can produce,
that places them at the forefront of today’s “performative” museological
paradigm (Williams, 2007: 96).
We can no longer assume that historians, anthropologists, or curators are, or should be, the sole authoritative producers of narratives
about the past. If some in these positions still struggle with the idea
of giving up responsibility or expertise, they are nonetheless faced
6 Introduction
with newly visible, active categories of stakeholders influencing how
curatorial work is shaped, including community groups, the state, and
funding agencies. Complicated compromises must be reached vis-à-vis
the display and interpretation of artifacts and experiences. Further,
the goal of curatorial work is no longer simply to represent but to make
things happen. Audiences are being transformed into participants in ever
more dialogic curatorial experiments. Comment books are no longer
the sole trace of visitor opinion; indeed, their inscriptions may end
up on the exhibition wall as objects in their own right. In the original
Peruvian photography exhibit Yuyanapaq, a son wrote that his mother
was not mentioned among the victims of the internal war. If he were
to return to the exhibit today, he would see her name (and his whole
comment) prominently displayed on the wall. Visitors are even being
called upon to register their responses by re-curating the very objects
on display, moving them, sorting them, recording their stories about
them. A truck in Sweden brought the exhibit Difficult Matters: Objects
and Narratives that Disturb and Affect to small towns, where local people
were invited to select objects and debate their very appropriateness for
display (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2002). In the Manchester Museum’s
(UK) project “Collective Conversations,” invitations went out to members of immigrant groups to be filmed as they discuss the meanings of
museum objects to them, in an attempt to make visible and enhance
the “contact zone” that exhibitions create.6 Heather Igloliorte (this
volume) describes how a traveling exhibit is both a catalyst for, and
evolves with, input from the Inuit people in Canada’s far North who
are its subjects and key audiences. So if curators today are no longer
simply experts, but increasingly brokers, negotiators, facilitators, and
sharers of authority, how—if at all—may evidence of evil be used to
create positive change?
This question brings curation into conversation with directed political transformation. Attempts to curate difficult knowledge often take
place in the context of transitional justice, as part of the symbolic
aspect of efforts at national reconciliation. It is clear that public spaces
can become de facto venues for encounter, truth telling, and dialogue,
organic means for aggrieved groups to cope with, communicate, or
work through the difficult past. But what happens when such spaces are
crafted in strategic attempts by state, international, or community institutions to engineer (or simply proclaim) a desired social outcome? We
may legitimately ask how much—and what kind—of debate and contention we want, recognizing that the curation of difficult knowledge
can exacerbate conflict, or keep wounds traumatically open when they
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 7
might otherwise heal. Yet curating “reconciliation” risks other erasures,
neglects, and negations, potentially inflicting further harm by silencing
those living with scars, still-open wounds, or ongoing injustice. There
is a need for curatorial work that can both reveal and contain such tensions, highlighting the ways that aggrieved parties live in “contentious
coexistence” in the aftermath of violence, while also creating spaces for
more robust “dissensual community” to emerge.7
Disambiguating “difficulty”
Such discussions of curation link to the second half of this volume’s title:
“difficult knowledge.” What kinds of knowledge are difficult? Or rather,
what is it that is difficult about difficult knowledge? On the most basic
level, we might agree that what unites the papers in this volume is the
nature of their common historical subject matter: violent, tragic, gruesome, horrific, and painful. Certainly experiences of war, genocide, and
human rights violations can be difficult to confront for this reason.
But more difficult, perhaps, are questions of what such knowledge
does to us—or what we do with it. Both the lived experience and the
politics of such common and seemingly innocuous notions like empathy, identification, comparison, and bearing witness become deeply
fraught in the context of the public depiction, transmission, and reception of the suffering inflicted on distinct groups of people. More difficult than regarding other people’s suffering may be scrutinizing our
own habituated responses to it (Sontag, 2003).
It is troubling, for example, to consider what Edward Linenthal has
called “comfortable horrible” memory, or the ways that official narratives of tragedy may not do much beyond confirming what “we,” as
a pre-determined collectivity, already know, think, or feel (Linenthal,
1995: 267). Still more disturbing may be the recognition that legitimate
processes of mourning and community-building in the aftermath of
massive injustice and violence can simultaneously create further exclusions, or retrench old divisions and prejudices of the sort that helped
precipitate the original tragedies. Finally, perhaps most difficult is to
acknowledge that suffering does not necessarily ennoble, but may more
often embitter, isolate, and agitate. In Derrida’s words, “What is most
painful is that the painful is not painful for others” (1994: 56).
The notion of “difficult knowledge”—a category capacious enough to
accommodate these various aspects, and one that inspired the present
volume—can be traced to educational theorist Deborah Britzman, who
distinguishes it from “lovely knowledge” (Britzman, 1998; Pitt and
8 Introduction
Britzman, 2003). “Lovely knowledge” is easily assimilable, the kind of
knowledge that reinforces what we already know and gives us what
we are accustomed to wanting from new information we encounter.
Lovely knowledge allows us to think of ourselves—due to our identifications with particular groups—as, for example, timelessly noble, or
long-suffering victims, and to reject any kind of information about
ourselves or others that might contradict or complicate the story. The
North American pioneer myth of hardy settlers courageously conquering bare wilderness free for the taking, or immigrant narrative of foreigners who were welcomed and succeeded in pulling themselves up by
nothing more than their bootstraps (Vukov, 2002) are examples of such
lovely tales. The exhibitions described here by Igloliorte and Patterson
in North America and Szekeres in Australia disrupt these narratives with
more complex, difficult realities.
“Difficult knowledge,” conversely, is knowledge that does not fit. It
therefore induces a breakdown in experience, forcing us to confront the
possibility that the conditions of our lives and the boundaries of our collective selves may be quite different from how we normally, reassuringly
think of them. Such knowledge points to more challenging, nuanced
aspects of history and identity, potentially leading us to re-conceive our
relationships with those traditionally defined as “other.” Acknowledging
that as North Americans we continue to benefit from the colonial
projects that created our nations is one kind of difficult knowledge.
In this vein, Roger Simon suggests a productive relationship with
“difficulty” based on a “process of confronting and dismantling [of]
expectations” upon encountering such unfamiliar knowledge (Bonnell
and Simon, 2007: 67). While Simon theorizes this deep, pedagogical
approach to curating difficult knowledge in his epilogue to this volume,
here we draw attention to some of the concrete, practical challenges and
questions that arise in the process of both designing and analyzing such
curatorial work. How might one usefully intervene in public sites that
function as significant nodes in practices of identity formation? How
might we—as scholars, artists, curators—“activate,” “re-activate,” or
perhaps “de-activate” public sites of memory in ways that repair severed
cultural continuities, enhance inter-group understanding, and destabilize problematic boundaries, especially when such sites have more often
been employed in the reproduction of divisive notions of self and other?
How might theoretical critiques of the “traumatic repetition” of history
in collective identity be translated and enacted as public interventions?
The various disciplinary approaches represented in this volume share
some suggestive categories of concern that call for fuller articulation. For
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 9
example, there are a variety of analytical approaches to sites, objects, and
images: Are they texts to be read, representations to deconstruct, screens
onto which myriad readings are projected, or agents in their own right,
and therefore active players in the social arenas that their presence
helps to delineate? There are also questions of experiential and communicative modes: What is the relationship between affective and cognitive
states, and where might “action” fit in? In trying to curate suffering, is
our responsibility to determine and convey—as far as possible—that suffering’s precise ontology? Or is it to turn this suffering into something
productive, either to redeem it, or to redeem ourselves?
There are a range of possible curatorial poetics, and postures in which
heritage, memory, and history can be presented. Truth telling can be
confrontational, suggestive, a “call to action” or a documentation of
present and past injustices for future memory, as Tamar Katriel illustrates (this volume). Curatorial work can be self-reflexive, highlighting
underacknowledged challenges and suggesting its own limitations. It
can be partial or encyclopedic, authoritative or dialogic, creating spaces
for healing or dialogue. The danger is that attention to one form of
“difficult knowledge” may simultaneously obscure, or do violence to,
others.8 So much is deemed “too difficult” to be viewed in public at all.
Is this perspective patronizing? Should curators push back a bit, and
audiences simply “toughen up”?9 Or are certain displays of violence
gratuitous, an added injustice for victims of the original assault, while
simultaneously numbing viewers to others’ future suffering, as critic
Susan Sontag herself experienced (Sontag, 2003)?
It is primarily the audience that defines the success or failure of a
curatorial project. Demands are being made for processes of curation
to involve local stakeholders, survivors, community members of different generations, funders, collection donors, and in some cases former
perpetrators. Given partisan agendas, can the diverse needs of these
different constituencies be integrated in still-divided societies? Local,
national, and international contexts are often at play, as are differences
between elite and vernacular interests.
The emotional as well as the material stakes of a given display may
vary widely for different audiences, as visitors inhabit a wide range of
subject positions vis-à-vis the content of exhibits. Further, these change
over time, as communities engage unevenly in processes of “working
through” in relation to their communal tragedies. These differences
need to be identified and negotiated. Perhaps a successful curation is
one that, at least provisionally, “kindles a sense of ownership” on the
part of multiple communities (Brown, 2009).
Finally, what are our goals? What do we hope public curation of difficult knowledge can do? Is preserving the past a kind of gift? Photographs,
for example, may help “stop the flow of time” in ways that open a space
for critical reflection, as Newbury suggests (this volume). But there has
been an overwhelming bias in the practice of curation (extending to the
discussions in this volume) privileging a Western museological framework, in which preserving the past—at times via technologically heroic
measures—is taken as an unquestioned good. Similarly, heritage sites and
monuments—including avant-garde “counter-memorials”—still imply
strong mandates for remembering, even if remembering is pursued via
multiple forms of unsettledness.10 It is worth considering other notions
of the life cycles of objects and the qualities of time, memory, and history
that propose different relationships to the past. These may have underappreciated benefits in relation to “difficult knowledge,” especially when
communities become trapped in enduring legacies or traumatic cycles. If
liberation from the traumatic force of memory is one of the goals, how can
curation serve this end? Is it ever acceptable to bury the past, let it go, or
put it to rest? While preservation is powerful, there are other gifts.
And life, of course, goes on. In curation and narration, the temporal
frames continue to shift, and with them priorities and interests. As Erin
Mosely (this volume) illustrates, artists in post-apartheid South Africa
felt the ground move under them as they adapted a robust tradition of
“protest art” to an emerging era of “truth and reconciliation,” reflecting upon the past and posing hard questions of the “truths” that were
emerging, with an ethical voice and aesthetic eye. As messengers who
both curate and are curated, artists may bring us “emotionally” closer
to discerning the ongoing unknown (Maclear, 1999: 24).
As researchers, curators, and educators, we need to consider these
choices carefully. What are we, as spectators, to do in the face of past
(and indeed, present) violence? Is Dori Laub’s call, in the context of
Holocaust testimonies, “to bear witness to our witnessing,” sufficient
(Laub, 1992)? Yet we surely cannot know, understand, or convey all
pasts, and in a dogged attempt to do so, we may bind ourselves in a
“claustrophobic relationship between ethics, critical analysis and loss”
(Salverson, 2009). Tensions exist between the kind of broad public
attention to difficult knowledge that we hope for, and the trivializing
that often accompanies mass consumption.11 Yet amidst our fears of
ignorance, trespassing, appropriation, or even of our own emotions,
what roles—or what necessity—might there be for humor, failure,
forgetting, and love? It is the fundamental tension spanning the two
domains embedded in this volume’s title that fascinates and troubles
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 11
us: between curating/caring for and the difficult knowledge of violence and
oppression. There is an uneasy relationship between praise and critique,
between deconstruction and reconstruction, that scholarship on the
aftermath of violence has yet to fully plumb.
The “difficult knowledge” addressed in each chapter of this volume
is difficult in different ways. In its most mundane form, difficult might
simply refer to logistical matters: how to arrange a display, how to distinguish this museum or memorial site from others. But these problems
quickly become implicated in a range of deeper concerns. Sometimes the
key issue is how knowledge is packaged and instrumentalized—politically,
commercially, or otherwise. In curating contested histories, whose knowledge should be privileged and whose interests served? Those of curious
publics? Of victim communities? Of a transitional government? In other
cases the problem may be that the past is presented as a period that is
over, and our knowledge of it complete; how often are we shown the ways
in which some wounds remain open, bleeding into the present? Do we
agree on the oft-invoked “lessons of the past” and how we want them
enacted? Or what a “successful” memorial act might look like or do? And
in the end, our curatorial vision and best efforts notwithstanding, what is
the audience’s response? Despite different geographical and disciplinary
approaches, the scholars and practitioners in this volume are united in an
attempt to be critical, responsible witnesses to projects of “witnessing.”
Organization of the book
The chapters that follow present a rich array of overlapping engagements with the problems of curating difficult knowledge. The prefaces
to each section are intended to further enhance the conversations
among and within the chapters. While we have arranged the chapters
in thematic groups to highlight what we found to be particularly generative constellations, we hope readers will make their own connections
between and across categories.
Part I: Bearing Witness between Museums and Communities
This section addresses the difficult negotiations that confront curators
and communities who share a sense of ownership of or implication in
a historical episode or cultural problematic, but whose goals, attitudes,
or methods may be fundamentally or periodically at odds—either with
each other, or with engrained exhibitionary traditions. These authors
raise novel concerns and illuminate the potential for expanding curatorial vision.
Heather Igloliorte asks what strategies of curation are appropriate for an
exhibition aimed primarily at an audience of local survivors, “intended
to supplement, assist, and encourage” a range of healing initiatives? In
“‘We were so far away’: Exhibiting Inuit Oral Histories of Residential
Schools,” she recounts, from the position of exhibition curator, the challenges in developing an exhibit with and for a traumatized community
still actively struggling with the privations of the past and their reverberations in the present. Curation of Inuit survivor voices is a process
of working to undo multiple silences—those in the Canadian education
system, and those among reticent survivors themselves—without doing
further damage. The logistical problems in reaching remote Arctic communities that lack traditional exhibition sites and contain a diversity
of linguistic proficiencies also present opportunities to develop original
modes of communication and help enlarge the “space” available to tell
a still largely unarticulated story. Great care has been taken to develop
modes of presentation that are culturally appropriate to communities
in which the oral tradition is central and that allow the participants to
retain ownership of the self-representations they co-created with the
curator. Igloliorte suggests further that attentive curation that leaves
room for audience dialogue can facilitate the re-claiming of indigenous
meaning from problematic colonial imagery, while contributing these
hidden meanings back into an evolving historical archive. Amassing
these unheard histories provides an additional tool in the ongoing fight
for inclusion in government policies of recognition.
In “The Past is a Dangerous Place: the Museum as a Safe Haven,”
Vivienne Szekeres illustrates the role a museum can play in bringing
social issues to public discussion by helping communities to represent
themselves and some of their more difficult stories. Mindful of the
inherent fractures and competing agendas within every community, the
Migration Museum in Adelaide, Australia works to tell immigration’s
“other” stories, stories that are not all about gratitude and easy assimilation. In doing so, the institution has had to navigate a pressurized relationship between national politics and its own projects and possibilities,
using the cultural capital associated with museums to create a safe haven
for democratic participation. As a responsive, participatory institution,
the Migration Museum had long been a barometer of broader public
opinion. But the museum was catalyzed to become more explicitly a tool
to influence such opinion, using careful strategies to take big political
risks. At the same time, below the power politics, the museum quietly
grew into a unique ritual space shared by many local communities—a
keeper of their stories and a place to make their voices heard.
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 13
In her chapter, “Teaching Tolerance through Objects of Hatred:
The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia as ‘Counter-Museum,’”
Monica Eileen Patterson engages the museum as a technology for confronting painful subject matter and delivering scholarship about it to
broader publics. She illustrates how the Jim Crow Museum of Racist
Memorabilia employs a multifaceted approach to curation that rejects
conventional museum categories. Framing an open-ended assemblage
of everyday objects, the museum works to highlight links between past
and present around a deep-seated and deeply troubling manifestation of
racism. The museum’s founder has developed a methodology that strives
to confront without provoking, to invite and listen while also educating and enlightening, and to illuminate the “fraught nature of racism
as experienced by everyday people in real life” by drawing visitors into
dialogue about their own experience through material culture.
Finally, Amy Sodaro’s chapter, “Politics of the Past: Remembering the
Rwandan Genocide at the Kigali Memorial Centre,” addresses tensions
inherent in an increasingly widespread international model for state
regimes dealing with difficult national heritage: the memorial museum.
Intended locally as democratic spaces where a citizenry can face and
work through the traumatic past (by using diverse media, giving and
hearing testimony, and undertaking historical research), these institutions are also political tools in the international arena. A paradigm
developed for Holocaust museums, this model may not translate well
into a volatile social context like Kigali, where genocidal ideology still
bubbles just beneath the officially peaceful surface, justice has in no
definitive way been served, and organic local memorials languish for
lack of funding. In such a context, commemoration runs the risk of prematurely foreclosing precisely the process of attaining justice (of which
it is intended to form a key part) by univocally declaring reconciliation
where none has been achieved. Politically expedient on an international stage, where aid is delivered based on perceptions of stability,
commemoration by a fragile state can function as a tool of authoritarianism. The lack of blame for the genocide ascribed in the museum
exhibit to anything more proximate than the legacy of colonial forces
is telling.
Part II: Visualizing the Past
The authors in this section offer fresh viewpoints for considering visual
representations of violence and its aftermaths. Their discussions illustrate the value of melding artistic, representational, historical, and ethnographic approaches to apprehend the various levels on which images
make meaning, and offer a glimpse of the social lives of these complex
objects. We are shown how gallery spaces, due to both their relative
independence and to their particular spatial and temporal qualities,
can serve uniquely as public memory sites in ways unavailable to other
forms of mass media like television, radio, or the Internet.
Darren Newbury’s “Living Historically through Photographs in PostApartheid South Africa: Reflections on Kliptown Museum, Soweto”
offers a close reading of this mode of representation in a post-apartheid
site of memory. Despite controversies around the domination of
national memory over local memory or the failure of the larger curated
environment to serve the needs of the local traders and residents (due to
the privileging of abstract ideas and tourist attention), Newbury presents
Kliptown’s photographically-based museum as a worthy representational attempt to reinvest the site of a historic subaltern declaration of
human rights with the memory of these key political events. He suggests
that the Kliptown display may package potentially difficult knowledge
too redemptively, by presenting those who suffered apartheid not as
victims but as historical agents who opposed it and by making injustice
seem like a dark past that has been entirely overcome by the democratic
present. Nevertheless, he argues, the Kliptown museum’s approach to
curating photographs along with information about the ethical conditions of their production offers both “an invitation to live historically”
in the present, and a site at which to consider the politics of representation itself. In relation to the latter, he contends that the photographs are
staged in such a way as to highlight for the public the danger of turning
history into spectacle, and the “incompatibility of looking and acting.”
Newbury admits that his somewhat optimistic “reading” represents
imaginative potential, and not local social actuality.
In “Showing and Telling: Photography Exhibitions in Israeli Discourses
of Dissent,” Tamar Katriel addresses witnessing in a direct sense, in the
context of two projects of dissident activist documentary in Israel today.
Both photography exhibitions take a challenging stance vis-à-vis their
target audiences in an attempt to “condemn social silences and denials” about the daily reality of military occupation, and to break these
silences by inserting harsh hidden realities into the blinkered center of
Israeli existence. Viewing exhibitions both as sites of visual representation/communication and as interactive social arenas for performance
and interpersonal exchange, Katriel’s discussion troubles assumptions
about the relationship between commemoration and activism, illustrating the “particular blend of present-oriented activism and future
oriented memory” in the life cycle of each project. She points out
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 15
how these two modes may pull in different directions, reiterating the
potential incompatibility between looking and acting noted by Darren
Newbury. Her chapter also raises the uncomfortable question of just
who is served by making difficult knowledge public. Are such displays
in the interest of those currently suffering injustice, or only those struggling with their knowledge of it?
In “Visualizing Apartheid: Re-framing Truth and Reconciliation
through Contemporary South African Art,” Erin Mosely argues for viewing artists as “conspicuous agents of change” in the transition from
violent authoritarianism, who through their unique roles and creative
media are positioned to challenge selective, hegemonic narratives of
the past. Art’s inherently partial and free-flowing mandate makes it a
privileged site for working through challenges and layers of subjective
complexity not amenable to more neutral or regimented official venues
of truth telling. Yet Mosely suggests that many artists have nonetheless
shouldered a mandate of nation building through healing, empathy,
community reconstitution, and solidarity with many of the voices left
unheard and experiences unacknowledged in the country’s celebrated
Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Part III: Materiality and Memorial Challenges
The chapters in this final section reveal the sometimes uncanny ways
that places can have a voice in debates about the past, acting as stubborn irritants to attempts at closure, or posing difficult questions that
certain groups would wish away.
In “Points of No Return: Cultural Heritage and Counter-Memory
in Post-Yugoslavia,” Andrew Herscher offers a sustained theoretical
reflection on state-sponsored efforts to curate a multi-ethnic heritage
in postwar Kosovo. He shows how these projects of creating appropriately stable, reconciled national subjects meet with popular resistance
that both reveals heritage as ideology and refuses state assertions of
appropriate memory in favor of a wider range of engaged responses
to the past. Herscher critiques the widespread valorization in recent
memory studies of “unsettledness” as a fundamentally ethical memorial posture. Indeed, in examining resistance to historic preservation
in former-Yugoslavia—from modernist interventions to postmodernist substitutions—he questions the celebration of “memory” as the
ultimate outcome of memorials. To this end he offers examples of memory’s displacement, distortion, parody, exaggeration, and other forms
of transformation that reach beyond memorialization to “political discourse and action.”
Cynthia Milton parses opposing currents in Peru’s collective memory
of their bloody internal war (1980–95) through an analysis of acts of
vandalism perpetrated against one of the country’s few sites of memory,
the Eye that Cries (Ojo que llora), in Lima. Originally intended as a
space for remembering and paying homage to the victims of the armed
conflict, in “Defacing memory: (Un)tying Peru’s Memory Knots” Milton
illustrates how the site has become a space for contesting disputed
memories. While the memorial site is entirely a creation of artistic
imagination, repeated attacks on the site have endowed it more directly
with socially accrued meaning. The stained and broken stones of the
memorial site telegraph the desire on the part of certain groups to stifle
the emerging memory of the victims of the war years. Ironically, this
potential re-victimization has amplified public discourse and inspired
communities of remembering that might never have emerged had the
relatively obscure site been left untouched. Yet the ongoing conflicts
over the past made visible at this site (over how, what, and whom to
remember) point to the limits of memory work in Peru, and the perils of
such symbolic endeavours for present-day reconciliation efforts.
Sławomir Kapralski’s “(Mis)representations of the Jewish Past in
Poland’s Memoryscapes: Nationalism, Religion and Political Economies
of Commemoration” delineates various modes with which the material
traces of Poland’s Jewish past are managed in the country’s shifting postwar memorial economy. Employing the notion of “memoryscapes,” he
illustrates how different periods in Poland’s recent past (post-Shoah,
communism, and democracy) have given rise to different approaches
to remembering and representing Jewish Poland: oblivion, erasure,
and preservation. He reveals how mono-ethnic, intra-Polish memorial
struggles—such as communism vs. ethno-nationalism—have at times
overpowered, silenced, and eliminated the space for local reckonings
with the Jewish past.
While considering the complexities of difficult knowledge, we ask
readers to let themselves be affected by the striking images contained in
these chapters, which suggest the unique power of curatorial work:
The small boxes holding Cambodian immigrants’ few possessions for their
new lives. The U.S. postcard depicting four naked black children on the
bank of a river with a caption reading, “Alligator Bait.” The stained and
broken memorial stones of Peru’s “Crying Eye.” The color family snapshots of murdered Rwandans free for the taking at a local memorial. The
insistence of the Jewish past in Poland in the form of ghostly lettering that
brightens and fades with changing regimes of memory. The collection of car
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 17
keys confiscated from Palestinian drivers at Israeli checkpoints. The immigrant story told by way of a cell containing only a single naked lightbulb,
a chair, and a bucket. Inuit residential school survivor Carolyn Weetaltuk
recognizing her mother in an unlabeled photograph of school children
during the preparation of an exhibit. Jane Alexander’s sculpture “Butcher
Boys,” half-men, half-beasts whose scars and disfigurements make visible
and visceral apartheid’s psychic wounds—dark, dormant creatures loitering
in everyday places, ominously poised to re-awaken.
We are witnesses as these images and objects, emerging from hateful
contexts, are transformed into the visible, material touchstones of new
experiences and narratives. We hope their curation may evoke empathy,
understanding, self-scrutiny, and a productive struggle with too much
difficult knowledge.
1. The outdoor kiosks led into an indoor exhibit called Kde Domov Můj?
[Where is My Home?]. Named after the Czechoslovak national anthem
and sponsored by the political party Civic Forum (Občansky Forum), it was
part of the larger movement to return knowledge of national history to the
Czechoslovak citizenry.
2. The exhibit, in Polish I cia˛gle widze˛ ich twarze: Fotografia Żydów polskich,
was conceived and created by Golda Tencer, director of Warsaw’s Shalom
3. The first quote is from photograph contributor Zofia Sobel, Urzedów,
Poland. Available at
JrF&b=478594 [Accessed November 10, 2010]. The second one is from Jan
Kochanski, Zawiercie, Poland. Available at
pp.asp?c=jmKYJeNVJrF&b=478613 [Accessed November 10, 2010]. Emphasis
4. “Yuyanapaq: Para Recordar,” exhibition pamphlet, 2003. See also Milton and
Ulfe, 2011.
5. See also Sevcenko, 2004.
6. Available at [Accessed November 10, 2010]. For a discussion of the limits
of such attempts at democratic co-production of museum knowledge, see
Lynch and Alberti, 2009.
7. Leigh Payne coins the expression of “contentious coexistence” as a potential political model in societies where perpetrators and survivors must live
together (Payne, 2008). John Borneman (2002) develops the concept of “dissensual community.”
8. Dominick LaCapra asks, “What modes of narrative are most suited for
rendering traumatic events, especially in ways that do not harmonize,
stylize, or even airbrush them and thus border on repression or denial?
What non-narrative forms complement, supplement, and contest narrative
representations?” (LaCapra, 2001: 205). Michael Rothberg adds that certain
esthetics or strategies may be more or less “adequate to the task of representing and recalling history’s overlapping forms of violence” (Rothberg,
2009: 35)
9. This stance was encouraged by one of our conference participants. The call
to “toughen up” is complicated by the fact that many public spaces are
open to children. The Holocaust Museum in Washington protects children
from difficult images by placing them in recessed display cases, out of their
10. The notion of the “counter-memorial” is from Young, 1992.
11. As Andreas Huyssen has argued, the commodification of past events does
not necessarily diminish their historical importance. All depends on “strategies of representation and commodification pursued and on the context in
which they are staged” (Huyssen, 2003: 18–19).
Works cited
Bilbija, Ksenija, Jo Ellen Fair, Cynthia E. Milton, and Leigh A. Payne (eds)
(2005). The Art of Truth-telling about Authoritarian Rule. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press.
Brown, Kris (2009). “Cultural and Curatorial Struggles: Recording and
Remembering the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland.” Unpublished paper
presented at Curating Difficult Knowledge conference, Montreal, April 16–18.
Bonnell, Jennifer and Roger Simon (2007). “‘Difficult’ Exhibitions and Intimate
Encounters.” Museum and Society 5(2): 65–85.
Borneman, John (2002). “Reconciliation after Ethnic Cleansing: Listening,
Retribution, Affiliation.” Public Culture 14(2): 281–304.
Britzman, Deborah (1998). Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic
Inquiry of Learning. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Derrida, Jacques (1994). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of
Mourning, and the New International, Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge.
Huyssen, Andreas (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of
Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Karp, Ivan, Cory Kratz, and Lynn Szwaja (2007). Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/
Global Transformations. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (2002). “The Museum as Catalyst.” In PerUno Ågren (ed.). Museum 2000: Confirmation or Challenge? Stockholm:
Riksutställningar [Swedish Traveling Exhibitions], Svenska museiföreningen
[Swedish Museum Association].
Laub, Dori (1992). “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” In
Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (eds). Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in
Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 57–74.
Lerner Febres, Salomon (2004). La rebelión de la memoria: selección de discursos
2001–2003. Lima: IDEHPUCP, CEP, CNDDHH.
LaCapra, Dominick (2001). Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press.
Linenthal, Edward (1995). Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s
Holocaust Museum. New York: Viking USA.
Erica Lehrer and Cynthia E. Milton 19
Lynch, Bernadette T. and Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (2009). “Legacies of Prejudice:
Racism, Co-production and Radical Trust in the Museum.” Museum Management
and Curatorship 25(1): 13–35.
Macdonald, Sharon (2006). “Introduction.” In Sharon Macdonald (ed.).
A Companion to Museum Studies. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell,
Maclear, Kyo (1999). Beclouded Visions: Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the Art of Witness.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
Milton, Cynthia E. and María Eugenia Ulfe (2011). “Promoting Peru: National
Memory, Identity, and Tourism.” In Ksenija Bilbija and Leigh A. Payne (eds).
Accounting for Violence: The Memory Market in Latin America. Durham: Duke
University Press, 207–33.
Payne, Leigh A. (2008). Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in
Confessions of State Violence. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pitt, Alice J. and Britzman, Deborah P. (2003). “Speculations on Qualities
of Difficult Knowledge in Teaching and Learning: An Experiment in
Psychoanalytic Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education
16(6): 755–76.
Rothberg, Michael (2009). Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in
the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Salverson, Julie (2009). “Bearing Foolish Witness.” Unpublished paper presented
at Curating Difficult Knowledge conference, Montreal, April 16–18.
Sevcenko, Liz (2004). The Power of Place: How Historic Sites Can Engage Citizens
in Human Rights Issues. Minneapolis: The Center for Victims of Torture
New Tactics in Human Rights Project.
Sontag, Susan (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.
Vukov, Tamara (2002). “Performing the Immigrant Nation at Pier 21: Politics
and Counterpolitics in the Memorialization of Canadian Immigration.”
International Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue internationale d’etudes canadiennes
26: 17–40.
Williams, Paul (2007). Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate
Atrocities. Oxford: Berg Press.
Young, James (1992). “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in
Germany Today.” Critical Inquiry 18(2): 267–96.
Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 2013, volume 31, pages 682 – 699
How is space public? Implications for spatial policy
and democracy
John R Parkinson
Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL,
England; e-mail:
Received 17 August 2011; in revised form 20 July 2012
Abstract. Battles over public space involve conflicts of values that express themselves in
planning policies as well as the built environment. However, the dominant conceptions
of public space in planning practice and the academic literature support a limited range of
those values. I argue that conceptions based on openness and accessibility play into a
particular construction of public life that emphasises casual interactions and downplays
purposive, political ones. Following a conceptual analysis of the public–private distinction,
the paper offers a novel, threefold account of public space; argues that democracy requires
a particular kind of publicness not recognised by the commonly accepted definition; and
deploys a simple content analysis to highlight the conceptual emphases and absences in
planning policy in the political heart of London. I argue that some advocates of public
space are unwittingly supporting restrictive planning and design practices that limit
important kinds of democratic expression.
Keywords: public, private, space, democracy, London, protest
1 Introduction
Public space in major cities has long been the site of policy contestation. Planners have been
driving spatial strategies that emphasise the health, environmental, and community benefits
that are said to come from particular approaches to the built environment, valuing relatively
intimate spaces with lots of furniture and planting to encourage people to stop, sit, and interact
(eg, CABE, 2002; Sennett, 2002). City development officials have tried to use large open
spaces for entertainment and spectacle (eg, NCC, 2005), have handed over the management
of sidewalks and promenades to local business associations keen to increase foot traffic past
their premises (Dovey, 2004; Schaller and Modan, 2005), or have downplayed inner-city
space and focused on peripheral shopping malls (Kohn, 2001). Security officials have been
promoting an approach that seeks to enhance the security of public figures by a combination
of wide, open, and surveillable spaces around public buildings plus perimeter security
provided not by jersey barriers but by trees and urban furniture, as well as TV cameras and
patrols (eg, Benton-Short, 2007; NCPC, 2005; Vale, 2005). Citizens themselves use public
space for an enormous range of purposes—places to stop for a sandwich, to play, to walk the
dog, to get from A to B, to people-watch, to read a book, to skateboard, to feed the ducks, to
reconnect with nature, to reconnect with memories via memorials, to feel part of a collective
enterprise, to demonstrate, to display, to meet, to sleep … the list could go on (cf Burgess et al,
1988; Iveson, 2007).
These strategies and uses are conflicting. Space that is good for quiet contemplation of
nature is often not good for mass events; space that is secure is often not good space for casual
interaction; space that is good for demonstrating is not good space for commercial needs.
Thus, these conflicts matter when it comes to decisions about the design and management of
urban public space.
How is space public?
Given all that complexity and contestation, it is not surprising that the planning literature
has developed critiques of the dominant spatial planning agendas (especially Allmendinger
and Haughton, 2010; see also Baker et al, 2010; Gallent and Wong, 2009). What is
much more surprising is that various branches of the literature have settled on relatively
straightforward definitions of public space—definitions that focus on some uses and filter out
others. Minimally, definitions focus on ‘open and accessible’ space (eg, GLA, 2011, page 47;
Stevens, 2009). Urban scholars, reflecting a long-standing concern with the ‘socialness’
of the city experience from Simmel (1950) onwards, take that ‘accessible’ starting point
and reflect on the variety of ways in which access to space is restricted and by whom, or
by what forces and in whose interests restrictions are established, maintained, challenged,
and loosened. This includes a reaction against the tendency in the planning profession to
objectify space and treat human behaviour as a direct product of spatial arrangements,
as opposed to space as being itself a social construct (see also Gieryn, 2000; Lehtovuori,
2010). Mainstream urban scholarship thus advances a competing normative vision of public
space as sites for unscripted encounters between strangers (eg, Kohn, 2004; Lofland, 1998;
Madanipour, 2003) rather than encounters scripted by landowners, business, and planners
who serve their interests.
Valuable though those insights are, unscripted encounters between strangers cannot be all
there is to public space, especially in democratic states. I argue that the standard definition
reinforces a tendency to filter out expressly political concerns, the purposive collective action
of citizens rather than their accidental encounters. The standard definition is insufficient for
descriptive purposes because it fails to capture the full variety of often-incompatible ways
in which public space is used. It is insufficient on normative grounds because it fails to
provide sufficient reasons to justify certain kinds of democratic action and the space that is
needed to perform those actions. To put it more sharply, while it is the case that many urban
scholars decry the loss of space for purposive collective action (eg, Mitchell and Staeheli,
2005, page 798; Stevens, 2009), their very definition of public space provides only weak
grounds on which to resist such losses.
The aim of this paper is to specify and clarify a political definition of public space that
can be used to provide firmer ground for criticising planning and design for democratic
engagement. I start with the standard public–private distinction and argue that the public
and private labels mask several different distinctions. To go deeper, in sections 2 and 3
I supplement a sociological understanding of public space with a political account, resulting
in a more nuanced, threefold definition of public space, such that spaces might exhibit three,
two, or just one of the features and still be thought of as ‘public’. In section 4 I develop the
political element of the definition by setting out the spatial requirements for the performance
of public roles in a democracy. In section 5 I then use a simple content analysis of a set of
recent planning documents concerning London’s central political zone to highlight the
extraordinary degree to which political, democratic imperatives are not just downplayed but
absent from urban spatial policy in the capital city of a major democracy.
I take an expressly liberal view of politics and democracy. This is because the public–
private distinction is itself a liberal concept, albeit a much-criticised one; and because the
institutions found in Western democracies are largely liberal ones. If an important purpose
of analysis of public space is to criticise and modify spatial practices in liberal states, then
it helps to start with arguments that already have some ‘bite’ in such states. I recognise that
starting with a different account of politics and democracy might lead the analysis in different
directions, both analytically and normatively. My aim here is more limited: to show that
even a mainstream, liberal account of politics helps sharpen the critical tools that scholars of
public space already have available. The conclusions in section 6 provide firmer normative
J R Parkinson
ground on which to argue for access to particular sites for expressly political purposes; and
reasons to rethink public spatial policies that are potentially disastrous for democracy, despite
their advocates’ best intentions.
2 The public–private distinction
Public space(1) discussions often start by making a more general distinction between public
and private, but rarely do such discussions delve into the origins and nature of the distinction.
It is useful to do so in the present context, for two reasons. First, one aim of this paper is to
clarify concepts from a liberal democratic point of view, and the public–private distinction
has been a cornerstone of liberal politics and liberal democratic theory. Second, the nature
of that cornerstone has been questioned in political theory for many years now; indeed, the
very idea that there is a coherent distinction to be made has been called into question, and
yet the vast majority of urban scholarship that starts with conceptual definitions continues
to trade in standard binary distinctions. In this section I deal with the second of those points
first, disrupting binary categories so that the concept of public space can be examined afresh.
Perhaps the clearest exposition of the problematic nature of the public–private distinction
comes from Geuss (2001), and so it is worth quoting him at length:
“ There is no such thing as the public/private distinction, or, at any rate, it is a deep mistake
to think that there is a single substantive distinction here that can be made to do any
real philosophical or political work … . it is not the case that we must or should adopt
a two-step procedure, first getting clear about the public/private distinction, assuming
all the while that there is a single distinction to be made, and then, having discovered
where the line falls between public and private, going on to ask what we can do with
that distinction, what attitude we should adopt toward it, what implications making
the distinction correctly might have for politics. Rather, first we must ask what this
purported distinction is for, that is, why we want to make it at all. To answer this question
will bring us back to some relatively concrete context of human action, probably human
political action, and it is only the context of connecting the issue of the public and private
to that antecedent potential context of political action that the distinction will make any
sense” (pages 106–107, original emphasis).
In other words, appeals to the publicity or privacy of something are actually appeals to other
facts and values which are bundled up in the labels ‘public’ and ‘private’. These include the
following four broad categories:
(1) Freely accessible places where strangers are encountered whether one wants to or not,
because everyone has free right of entry—as opposed to places that are not freely accessible,
and that have controllers who limit access to or use of that space (page 52).
(2) The things that concern, affect, or are for the benefit of everyone—Arendt’s (1958,
page 52) second sense of ‘public’—as opposed to things that primarily concern individuals,
following Dewey (1924). This realm includes ‘common goods’ (Hardin, 1968) like clean air
and water or public transport.
(3) The people or groups that have rights over or responsibility for the realm covered in 2,
which might include rulers, or ‘public figures’, or ‘the public’ as a noun rather than an adjective.
It should be noted that throughout I use the phrase ‘public space’ to refer to the physical spaces of
public interaction and ‘public sphere’ to include nonphysical, mediatised interaction as well. This is
distinct from some writers who use ‘public space’ and ‘public sphere’ interchangeably, such as Barnett
and Low (2004), Benhabib (1992), and Nagel (1995). I also use the term ‘space’ to denote the physical
setting and ‘place’ to denote the fuller social construct, following Gieryn (2000) and, to a lesser extent,
Agnew (1987). This is the opposite usage to that prevalent in some branches of architectural theory,
where place denotes the physical form and space denotes the social construct (eg, Rendell, 2008). For
further discussion see Parkinson (2012).
How is space public?
This group of ideas also concerns the roles that people play, exemplified by the common
distinction between politicians’ private commercial and family interests and their public roles
managing collective resources and concerns.
(4) Things which are owned by the state or the people in (3) and paid for out of collective
resources like taxes, versus things and places that are individually owned, including things
that are cognitively ‘our own’, like our thoughts, goals, emotions, spirituality, or preferences.
The important point to note about this list is that a particular practice might be public
on one ground but not on others; it might have a mix of public and private features. To see
this, take the example of ownership. For classical liberal political theorists the right to limit
access to a thing flows from ownership of that thing, so that individual ownership defines
whether something is private or not (Pennock, 1980; cf Christman, 1994, page 6). However,
it is possible to think of counterexamples. In Britain national parks are made up of privately
owned parcels of land, but people have the right to wander across that land uninvited and
with remarkably few restrictions. Equally, there are buildings and spaces that are public in
the sense that they are owned by the state and consume common resources, but to which there
are more limited rights of entry: national parks in most other countries, military facilities, the
offices of government departments, and even legislatures. The point is not about the limits
of ownership rights; it is that many phenomena cannot be labelled wholly public or wholly
private. Similarly, ownership and common impact do not track each other neatly. There are
many things that are not owned by the state but which nonetheless use common resources,
provide public goods, or have public impacts, such as transport systems, heavy industrial
facilities, and pension funds. The same is true for any other pair of these categories. The
categories are logically distinct, despite the fact that we habitually bundle them together
under a single label.
The observation that things can be public when one considers one set of attributes and
private when one considers another has important implications for my present purposes. It is
likely that any given space could be public in several senses or just in one. This means that
we ought to avoid neatly dichotomous definitions of anything that is claimed to be public or
private, space included. How, then, should we make sense of the category ‘public space’? In
the next section I go into that in a little more detail, before taking Geuss’s advice and setting
out what public space might mean in a specific, political context.
3 Defining physical public space
So far, the discussion has shown that there are four broad ways in which something might
be public. I do not claim that these four categories are exhaustive or that one could not make
more, finer-grained distinctions, but to do so we need to step down a level of abstraction. In
this section I take the four categories and examine how they apply in the specific context of
The first category of public set out in the previous section is itself spatial, freely accessible
space, particularly space in which we encounter strangers, and it is this approach to defining
public space that we find most often in the literature. Even in work that explicitly challenges
liberalism, the dominant definition of public space is nonetheless based on the classic liberal
distinction between a realm of individuals, their minds, bodies, family, and property; and a
common realm of streets, plazas, parks, malls, and buildings where access is unrestricted
and strangers interact with each other (Kohn, 2004; Madanipour, 2003). Indeed, in some
branches of the literature interaction with strangers is taken to be emblematic of public space,
contrasted to the world of the home, family, friends, and those one chooses to invite and
interact with (Lofland, 1998, pages 7–8). Approaches to what lies between such spaces vary.
On the one hand, there are those like Lofland (page 10) who uses the term ‘parochial’ to
denote spaces for repeated interactions between neighbours and acquaintances in relatively
J R Parkinson
local communities. On the other there are those like Benjamin (1999) who famously focuses
on liminal spaces where the private and the public are said to collide, such as European
city arcades in which privately owned buildings arch over publicly accessible footpaths. For
many writers it is at these boundary points between public and private space where much
of the conflict they study arises (Dovey, 1999); for others it at these points that citizens can
make their voices heard, and the creativity of collective life emerges (Franck and Stevens,
2007; Lehtovuori, 2010; Oldenburg, 1997).
This first account of public space raises three issues. The first two are difficulties internal
to the account itself, and are to do with the emphasis on strangers and unscripted encounters.
First, the strangers motif is often discussed in terms of absence of choice, but in family groups
there is no aspect of choice either, yet family is always included on the private side of the
ledger. So, choice cannot be the defining element of private space, nor its lack definitive of
public. Second, there are many kinds of public events in public space that are highly scripted
and impose quite rigid standards of behaviour, well beyond everyday norms and boundaries.
Think, for a moment, of major ceremonial events in which the rituals of membership of a
given polity are acted out (Goodsell, 1988). Spaces that are used for national events often
come with reserved norms of behaviour even when not being used for formal events. This
does not mean there should be no room for challenges to the rules, on the one hand, or good
old playfulness, on the other (Stevens, 2007). But even if we bracket off such ‘exceptional’
events, there are the cultural scripts we follow in daily life as well. Indeed, one of the points
insisted on by Simmel, Goffman (1963), Lofland, and others is that the urban experience
is characterised by everyday rituals of civility, which ensure that one’s freedom does not
conflict too much with others’—a classically liberal position, by the way (Rawls, 1971).
The point is that there are scripts for encounters in public space, rules which do not seem to
diminish the ‘publicness’ of the space.
The third issue concerns the political blind spot of definitions of public space that follow
this ‘open and accessible’ approach. Such definitions are sociological in a very foundational
sense. They start their analysis of public space by contrasting it to a private or parochial
space of home, family, and community, taking a direct line from Simmel (1950) and Tönnies
(1957), who themselves start more or less explicitly with the connectedness of Gemeinschaft,
then wander into the city and find that quality replaced by a complex set of rituals, sites, and
rules to produce the civility of Gesellschaft. That is very different from the starting point of
liberal political theory, and it is worth spelling out that alternative in some detail.
In classical liberal thought the public–private distinction emerges as part of a challenge
to the authority of sovereigns, casting the ‘problem’ of government as how to justify the
interference of states and sovereigns in the lives of otherwise-free, ‘private’ individuals.
A legitimate state from this perspective is not so much one that engenders the belief in
its legitimacy—the sociological approach to legitimacy advanced by Weber (1965) and
perpetuated by empirical political scientists ever since—but one whose rules are either the
result of explicit agreement among those subject to them, or tacit agreement founded on
authorisation and accountability of rule makers (Ackerman, 1991). In such a context the
private sphere is primary, characterised as the ‘locus of initiative’ in which free individuals
make autonomous decisions—while the public sphere is where the conflicts that arise between
individual preferences are resolved and the rules of their association defined (Baechler, 1980,
page 269). Thus, in liberal political theory ‘public’ denotes the sphere where individuals
themselves or through their duly appointed representatives press claims upon each other;
where decisions about resources and resource allocation are made; and where norms are set
and values weighed—where politics happens, in other words.
How is space public?
Precisely where the boundary between public and private and the political and the
nonpolitical should lie, though, has long been recognised as problematic. For example, a
major strand of feminist political thought has shown how the liberal insistence on the primacy
of the private sphere can be used to hide the political dimensions of domestic relationships,
which led some to want to push the boundary of legitimate political concern well towards
the private end of the scale. In the context of debates about fertility, however, the trend is
reversed, with writers arguing instead for strict limits on the degree to which the public
can encroach on women’s decisions about their bodies (Cohen, 1996). Critical theorists and
others have used these kinds of debates to launch a general rethinking of the extent and nature
of the public sphere, arguing that it is found not just in formal institutions but in informal ones
too—around kitchen tables as well as in kitchen cabinets—and that it might be more accurate
and more normatively desirable to talk of numerous public spheres in the plural rather than
assuming a single, all-inclusive public sphere. (2)
This difference between the sociological and political starting points matters a great
deal, because it has a big impact on analyses of the democracy’s spatial requirements. With
few exceptions (eg, Barnett, 2003; Iveson, 2007), when urban sociologists and human
geographers write on democracy and public space they either do not specify what they
mean by democracy at all (eg, Benton-Short, 2007) or use the word democracy to mean a
particular kind of negative liberty—the absence of interference in the pursuit of goals. While
there is certainly a case for thinking that liberty thus conceived is an essential element of
a democratic order (Rawls, 1996), it hardly exhausts the list of requirements. By contrast,
political and policy scientists tend to start from the view that democracy is a way of sorting
out the conflicts that arise between individuals pursuing their own ends: questions about how
to distribute resources(3) or, in Laswell’s (1958) famous phrase, “who gets what, when and
how”; the interests and power relations that structure that distribution; and the normative
issues of who should get what, and how to structure society so that they get it. We can see the
difference this makes by considering the spatial analogues of the other kinds of ‘public’ noted
in the previous section. If we think politically, then these spaces include:
● monuments and streetscapes where the demos represents itself to itself, anchoring
identities and memories (Till, 2005);
● spaces owned by ‘the public’ for other collective purposes, such as security, education,
information sharing, recreation, and amenities like cemeteries, transport and other
infrastructure, libraries, or public toilets;
● and the spaces for the performance of political roles like public claim and decision
making, representation, collective decision making, and scrutiny (Parkinson, 2013).
In the next section I go into more detail on the last item on that list—the sites of democratic
performance. But for the moment it is worth summing up where we have got to with a
definition of public space. By analysing the ideas masked by the public–private distinction,
and bringing in a political account of the public, public space has been expanded to mean
three things:
a. openly accessible space; and/or
b. space of common concern (in terms of using common resources or having common
effects); and/or
c. space used for the performance of public roles.
See Benhabib (1996) and Fraser (1992). On the spatial emplacement of gender relations see
Colomina (1992) and Wilson (1991).
By ‘resources’ I mean things like time, money, and various physical goods, but also information and
information technology; welfare-related goods like health and happiness; abstract goods like ability,
opportunity, autonomy, and liberty; or symbolic resources like national buildings, plazas, flags, and
centres of public action.
J R Parkinson
Some space can be public in all three senses, like large central plazas. It can be public in just
two of the senses, like recreational and other ‘public’ facilities (senses a and b) or legislatures
(senses b and c, but with access ranging from strictly limited to completely closed). Or it
can be public in just one of the senses, including privately owned and tenanted skyscrapers
(sense b). Examples of space that is public in only sense c might include privately owned
locations that are used for public purposes, such as the conversations about collective matters
that go on every day around the kitchen table, whether among family and friends or among
dissidents gathered away from the watchful eye of the state—the activity determining the
publicness of the space more than any intrinsic features of the space itself (Benhabib, 1992,
page 78; Gieryn, 2000; Mansbridge, 1999).
This definition of public space is more nuanced than that which dominates the literature
at present. While the empirical work of geographers and urban sociologists certainly look at
practices of all three kinds, the dominant definition of public space focuses on type a. Political
theorists, to the extent that they notice it at all, sometimes discuss type b (although not in such
terms) but surprisingly rarely consider type c; type a is not on their radar at all. Planners and
city development officers tend to focus on a and b but miss type c, especially space required
for the performance of political roles. My task in section 4 is to develop the account of
type c, and I do so by focusing on the democratic roles.
4 Democratic public space
‘Public roles’ in the definition of type c space could cover a wide range of practices, but in
a democracy particular roles are emphasised. Drawing on recent accounts of public claim
making, representation, the performance of roles, and the ‘division of labour’ in a democracy
(Hajer, 2009; Parkinson, 2006; 2012; Parkinson and Mansbridge, 2012; Rehfeld, 2009;
Saward, 2006; Young, 2000), the main roles are:
● articulating interests, opinions, and experiences;
● making public claims:
defining collective problems or defending existing arrangements,
requesting action or inaction on collective problems,
expressing, setting, and defending norms, and
making claims on public resources;
● deciding what to do, or what not to do, to address public claims, including weighing up
● scrutinising and giving account for public action and inaction.
● representing experiences, opinions, and interests, including making, checking, and
challenging claims to represent.
The performance of the roles requires physical engagement (Parkinson, 2009). First,
the narrative and deliberative phases of democracy work best when conducted face to face,
because it increases civility and allows the nonverbal cues to be transmitted and received
(Gutmann and Thompson, 1996; Kock, 2007). Second, it is important that claim makers
should be seen in dignified, symbolically rich public space so that their claim making is
made obvious to other citizens; in order to demonstrate to decision makers the scale of public
displeasure; and so that claim makers themselves get the sense that they are not alone—a
sense of political efficacy depends on that. Third, a sense of inclusion and membership of
the demos is enhanced when one sees one’s narratives anchored in symbolic, physical form.
Even the presence of the marginal in public places is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition
for them to feel and be recognised as fellow claim makers by other members of the demos
(cf Mitchell, 1995). Fourth, the physical performance of decision making helps attentive public
perform their scrutiny role (Hindson and Gray, 1988). Virtual decision making can too easily
become hidden, back-room decision making. Forcing decision makers into public view helps
How is space public?
force decision making into public view, with all the deliberative benefits of publicity that
follow (Gutmann and Thompson, 1996).
Now, crucially, some roles require very particular kinds of space, something that Kenneth
Burke (1969) calls the ‘scene–act ratio’. Hajer (2005) claims that it is meaningless to seek
a general account of links between political roles and their appropriate stages, because what
links scene and act is highly variable and context dependent. I disagree: high variability does
not mean that there are no limits within which the variation takes place, and we can theorise
what those limits might be.
The first democratic role is narrating political issues, distributing opinion and political
‘storylines’ (Hajer, 1993) throughout a democratic society. When it comes to spatial
performance of this role, the limits are very wide indeed. Narration takes place in all sorts of
settings: in the informal public sphere it happens in homes, pubs, clubs, at work, in the street,
and wherever people interact (Mansbridge, 1999); in the formal public sphere it happens when
witnesses are called to give evidence to parliamentary committees, or when representatives
narrate stories about the impact of policy on their constituents. It happens virtually too, of
course, but it happens in physical settings as well.
An important point arises here. Private political narrative is more than casual interaction,
something that is indicated by the frequently encountered taboos in many cultures about
discussing certain topics with strangers. Most private talk is about establishing social bonds,
not sorting out the problems of the world. When we expect narration to happen across
boundaries of experience and enclave, or when we expect conflict to arise—in other words,
and according to liberalism, those topics that are ‘political’ by their very nature—we tend
to move narration to designated settings where conflict can be encouraged yet contained, to
place it on a slightly more formal footing or a more formal setting, with rules of engagement
to civilise conflict. Those rules can be hierarchical and formal or fairly egalitarian (Dryzek,
1987). Thus the limits of the scene–act ratio when it comes to the narration of experience
depend on whether the experience being narrated involves conflict with others present at
the same time, which in turn depends on local norms about what constitutes acceptable and
unacceptable topics of normal, unmediated interaction.
The second democratic role, making public claims, has much in common with narration,
and thus shares elements of its scene–act ratio. However, the specific act of making public
claims requires that the rest of the public is paying attention somehow, and that implies
another set of restrictions on the range of possible settings. Simply talking among yourselves
in out-of-the-way places will not do: getting noticed and taken seriously is what matters,
which means that claims need to be made in publicly visible and accessible places (Mitchell
and Staeheli, 2005, page 798). Most obviously, groups can organise demonstrations at sites
of power or sites of symbolic importance, perhaps adding a march from one site to another.
The more people who turn out, the bigger the impact, because numbers are a proxy for the
significance of a point of view. It could involve spaces that the media regularly monitor
anyway, because they are spaces where the powerful and decision makers gather. It could
involve stunts designed to attract the television cameras. For all these approaches, visibility
is paramount.
In the case of representative institutions, the setting range is narrower again. We need not
get quite so carried away as Edmund Burke, who thought that a deliberative assembly should be
“ imposing and majestic. It should overwhelm the imagination of the populace, and
awe them into acquiescence. The arena should be the architectural summit of human
achievement, vast, impressive and sublime” (Hindson and Gray, 1988, page 31).
It is possible, for example, to stage binding collective decision making in much less grandiose
style, as the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Inner-rhodes and Glarus do at their annual outdoor
J R Parkinson
Landsgemeinden, held in the main town square each Spring (Reinisch and Parkinson, 2007).
Nonetheless, even though the Landsgemeinden take place outdoors, they are still ritualised,
physical assemblies that take place in a single location. This is important for two reasons. The
first is that the staging signals to people that the event matters—that the decisions reached
there have an impact on thousands, even millions, of people. The rituals of seriousness cue
us in to taking the proceedings seriously (Rai, 2010). The second reason is hinted at by
something else E Burke says: that being a member of a legislature means that one is “on a
conspicuous stage, and the world marks our demeanour” (quoted in Hindson and Gray, 1988,
page 21). When considering the scrutiny role of democracy, it is a significant advantage to
have a single, readily identifiable, and prominent stage, because it puts the powerful under
the spotlight and keeps them there.
To conclude this section, it is worth stressing two normative requirements for democratic
public space that arise from this discussion. The first is that there be a single or small number of
visible, publicly accessible, and dignified stages for the making, testing, and justification
of decisions by elected representatives. The second is that there be visible and relatively
uncluttered open space available in or near that same dignified space for public claim
making. The former is important for several reasons, but particularly to allow the scrutiny
role to be performed effectively. The latter is crucial both for the benefits that accrue to
citizens themselves—constituting themselves as an active, purposive public; gaining a sense
of efficacy; seeing that others feel like they do—and for the status of citizens and citizens’
claims in the public sphere, cloaking public claims and public claim making in the symbols
of dignity, as well as the more specific value of impressing on leaders the scale of public
But for that latter requirement to work, the available space needs to be relatively large,
open, and uncluttered by trees and urban furniture. To get a sense of how important this
requirement is, consider the case of Hong Kong—where Chater Gardens and Statue Square,
the two public spaces around the Legislative Council building, were rebuilt in the 1970s
to provide a lot of seating and conversational space. As Law (2002) argues, they are thus
great spaces for narrating experience among a subaltern group, but those same features make
them bad for demonstrating the scale of public displeasure because they break crowds into
small, policeable chunks. Protest marches in Hong Kong have an obvious assembly point for
around a hundred thousand people in Victoria Park, Causeway Bay; they have an obvious
marching route, the three kilometres down Hennessy Road and Queensway into Central; but
they have no obvious terminus, because Chater Gardens can hold only about 5000 people in
discrete little pockets; there is nowhere to stop outside the Chief Executive’s residence on
Upper Albert Road, and there is nothing but slip road and motorway outside the office tower
housing the Central People’s Government Liaison Office further west in Sheung Wan. This
allows ruling elites in Hong Kong to distance themselves from the people they are supposed
to be serving, and impacts on the degree to which people feel their views are taken seriously
(Parkinson, 2012). While Chater Gardens might aid unplanned (as opposed to unscripted)
encounters between denizens, it is an active barrier to public-driven encounters between the
masses and their rulers.
Hong Kong is a system with only limited democratic features. More challenging tests
of the importance of these concepts should come from the capital cities of established
democracies. In the final section I look at how these ideas play out in the City of Westminster,
one of the constituent boroughs of Greater London, and the borough in which Parliament
and most government departments reside. Through a very simple content analysis of three
planning documents, I show how democratic values are almost entirely absent from key
decisions around public space in a city that some claim to be the very home of democracy.
How is space public?
5 Case study: the meaning of public space in Westminster
London has been the scene of intense battles over the right to protest outside Parliament. In
2001 a lone protestor, Brian Haw, set up a peace camp on the grass of Parliament Square to
protest about the deaths of children in Iraq thanks to international sanctions.(4) Over the next
decade central and local government tried to remove the camp with its tents, huge numbers of
placards, and day-and-night loudhailer harangues of parliamentarians and passers-by. While
sometimes bordering on the farcical (eg, Ireland, 2008; Thomas, 2007), efforts to ban this
and to get similar camps removed eventually succeeded; and while there have been several
attempts to repeal some of the restrictions, bills have stalled several times in Parliament at the
same time as other legislation has strengthened rather than weakened the controls.(5)
Counterposed to the demands of activists and civil liberties groups has not just been the
security issues, but a set of claims about the heritage and dignity of the site; about peaceful
working and enjoyment; about traffic and pedestrian disruption; about disruption to tourists;
and about making the site available for ‘all users’—a motif discussed shortly. One of the
means of making the site available to all users is to enhance access to the square to “make
it easier for people to get closer to the square’s statues and to secure better viewing points
to take pictures of the Palace of Westminster” (Westminster, 2011a, unpaginated). Another
has been a series of proposals—some implemented, others quietly dropped—to redesign the
square with more furniture, pools, levels, and plantings, to make it work better as a place
for accidental interactions (GLA, 2009a; Hunt, 2008), but which, as suggested by the Hong
Kong case, would undermine its usefulness as a terminus for mass protest.
It is therefore instructive to examine official discourse around the site and see how public
space is defined ten years on, what values are bundled up with the label, which agents are
recognised, and whether the sites that are normatively valuable for democracy are recognised
as such (Fairclough, 2003). To do this I have conducted a simple content analysis of the key
planning documents that concern the central parliamentary zone:
(1) The Greater London Authority London Plan (GLA, 2009b). This document is designated
“Mayor” in the table and figures that follow.
(2) A response from the GLA (2011) Planning and Housing Committee to the draft mayoral
plan. This is designated “Assembly” in the table and figures.
(3) The Local Development Framework Core Strategy from the City of Westminster Council,
which is the local response to the overall GLA plan (Westminster, 2011b). This is designated
“Westminster” in the table and figures.(6)
I started the analysis by creating a simple coding frame which was developed in an
open, document-directed fashion, supplemented by concepts that are core to my normative
framework—it thus has both grounded and theory-driven elements (Berg, 2001). The frame
was then applied to the three texts to generate a word-frequency table (see table 1). From
these word frequencies some fascinating results emerge.
The first graph (figure 1) shows the differing conceptions of ‘public’ and ‘public space’.
Nearly half (47.8%) of the total mentions of public in the Mayor’s plan are to do with public
Kerslake (2010) provides a detailed day-by-day history of the camp, with links to media and blog
stories on events. Brian Haw died on 18 June 2011.
See details of the passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, available
from, with links to
amendments, committee hearings, and submissions.
The websites of other organisations with Parliament Square responsibilities were also searched for
relevant planning and policy documents, but no other extended discussions were found. Those other
organisations include: the Metropolitan Police; the Ministry of Defence Police (which sometimes has
Government Security Zone responsibilities); the Cabinet Office; the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of
Commons; and the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.
J R Parkinson
Table 1. Coding frame and word frequencies.
Concepts: public
Public transport
Public space
Public realm
Open space
Recreation, heritage
Play and games
Olympic Games
Health and Amenity
Quality of life
Palace of Westminster
Parliament Square
How is space public?
Open space
Public realm
Public space
Public transport
Figure 1. Definitions of public space.
transport, compared with 15.3% of mentions in the Westminster document and none in the
assembly response. But just as striking is the fact that ‘open space’ dominates the mayoral
and Westminster documents, while ‘public space’ dominates the assembly, followed by
‘public realm’. These terms have a precise meaning in British planning policy (GLA, 2011,
appendix 1). Open space means publicly accessible space without any formal facilities for
recreation—open, green parks, essentially—and is a term that dates from the Town and
Country Planning Act 1990 (section 336, interpretation). The public realm and public space
are usually treated as synonymous, and are more recent concepts meaning:
“ all those parts of the built environment where the public has free access. It encompasses:
all streets, squares, and other rights of way, whether predominantly in residential,
commercial or community/civic uses; the open spaces and parks; and the ‘public/private’
spaces where public access is unrestricted (at least during daylight hours). It includes
the interfaces with key internal and private spaces to which the public normally has free
access” (ODPM, 2004, page 10).
In other words, public space for London’s planners clearly means type a, open and accessible
space; and implicitly elements of type b, space of common concern, as will be seen when
discussing the values bound up with the concept; but not type c, space for the performance of
public roles, including democracy.
Type c gets a mention, but only just, as can be seen when we look at the values and
agents that are recognized in the documents. Starting with agents, figure 2 shows the relative
frequency of mentions of government, business, and three different constructions of nonelites: citizen, consumer, and user. The point to note here is that ‘citizens’, the democratic
role of active claim makers, barely get a mention (just two mentions in the mayoral document,
five in the assembly document, and none at all in Westminster document). ‘Users’ do not fare
much better in the Westminster and mayoral documents, but account for a third of the recorded
mentions of agents in the assembly report. Before we think that that is cause for celebration,
however, it needs to be remembered that the ‘user’ frame is deployed to crowd out the claims
of ‘citizens’ (Barnes, 1997; Scourfield, 2007), and that space that is good for one set of users
J R Parkinson
Figure 2. Agents in public space.
is not necessarily good for others. Space that is good for tourists and appreciation of a city’s
heritage is not necessarily good space to stop and sit with a book and a sandwich. Space that
is good for stopping at lunch time is space with lots of trees and urban furniture (Sennett,
2002), but that is space that is less good for packing in crowds of protestors.
The point to stress here is that a single space cannot possibly meet all the demands that
might be placed on it, so some needs are prioritised over others. Despite the two plans’
emphasis on ‘multifunctionality’ (GLA, 2009b, page 57) and “the needs of all” (Westminster,
2011b, page 96)—an outgrowth of the place-shaping and ‘liveability’ agendas of the last
decade or so (Gallent and Wong, 2009)—the kinds of spaces that policy makers in London
are actually advocating privilege tourists, shoppers, and lunchtime crowds over democratic
claim makers. Indeed, this is part of a general trend: the systematic, discursive privileging
of accidental publics—the ‘unscripted encounters with strangers’ kind of public, the
‘communities’ kind of public, and the ‘shoppers’ kind of public—over purposive publics
made up of citizens expressing or canvassing views (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2010;
Barber, 2001; Kohn, 2001; Parkinson, 2012). The irony is that this is the kind of move that
the writers of the assembly report are so keen to resist. They want to promote democratic
space; but by working with too-simple concepts of democracy, public, and public space they
fall into language and practices that reinforce the provision of space, for accidental rather
than purposive publics.
This view is reinforced by looking at the values associated with public space in the three
documents. In figure 3 we see the comparative weights given to different values, and here
the most striking feature is that word ‘democracy’ appears not once in the mayoral plan,
once only in the Westminster local plan, and just twice in the assembly report, where it is
associated with accessibility of space (type a) rather than public claim making (type c). The
words ‘demonstration’, ‘rally’, and ‘protest’ appear only in the assembly document, and even
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