The Post-public City: Experiences from Post-socialist Europe
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Public space has become an increasingly important focus in the work of architects, urban designers, philosophers, geographers, sociologists and others interested in promoting a more civil and democratic society. This vigorous attention to public space as an object of design and scholarly inquiry is likely driven by two factors. The first factor is the strong purported connection between vibrant public space as a material arena and a vibrant public sphere as a social condition. Space is not just a blank canvas on which social phenomena are imprinted. Rather, it is one of the very “constructive dimensions” of social life. Open, accessible, inclusive public space may serve as venue of social interactions that teach the values of tolerance, engagement and citizenship—values that are an “essential precondition for building a public world.” Lack of such spaces may lead to the opposite: a “trained incapacity for public life.” The second factor is the recent erosion of public space. Despite its importance, public space has in recent years been increasingly replaced by explicitly private or quasi-public spatial forms that are easily accessible only to select segments of the population. Examples include malls, gated communities, exclusive suburbs, office parks, new or gentrified urban districts, etc. Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson make a useful distinction between the values of community (i.e., exclusivity, membership, belonging to a group) transmitted in quasi-public spaces of the type mentioned above and those of civility (i.e., openness, inclusion, respect for otherness) transmitted in truly public spaces. This trend toward the privatization of urban space as a part of the broader privatization of the public sphere was initially highlighted in the United States and other parts of the “Western” world by scholars such as Michael Sorkin, Edward Blakeley and Nan Ellin but has by now been documented around the globe.