Posted by: VPSN | February 24, 2013

Is Public Space a Public Good? A synopsis of Mark Kingwell’s public lecture


For those of you who missed out the February 21 Warren Gill Memorial Lecture, by Mark Kingwell, don’t fret.  Our intrepid field reporter Katie Stowe has put together a synopsis of what was an inspired, fascinating, and complex exploration of issues around public space.

The Skinny

Kingwell kicked of his presentation by delivering a plot-spoiler.  The answer is: No. Straight up.  Public space is not a public good. Perhaps contrary to popular belief? I’m not sure, but I had the impression that I wasn’t the only surprised attendee, a newbie amidst a sea what seemed to be a sea of urbanism experts. Kingwell’s reasons behind the negative response are multifaceted and complicated – and I’ll do my best to give you my (admittedly) non-philosophers take on them.

1. The City as a Site of Justice

The concept of justice and its impact on our interaction with space set the foundation for Kingwell’s argument. People want to live in a good place – not just in an abstract sense, but in terms of everyday interactions. We want things to be right and good and want our city to be right and good so that we can get behind it and feel proud of it. (Consider, for example, the shocked reaction Vancouverites had to the 2011 Stanley Cup rioting).  Understanding this notion of ‘what is good’ implies the possibility of deliberating on matters of urban justice.  And public space – or the public sphere – offers both a potential environment for the realization of justice, and the opportunity to discuss it. In public space we can come together and debate what is right and good.

Of course there is often a contrast or conflict between what we believe is “good” with what works in practical application. For instance, the modernist ideals of Le Corbusier and his “city of three million” was developed with the best of intentions; however, when introduced in practice (or at least, when components of the idea were introduced in practice), the result often ended up being something akin to “vertical slums.”

In addition, the idea of a good, just city runs into other problems. And as with any good story there are the bad guys that challenge the system. You’ve got “free riders” that just take without contributing and “cheats” who work the system to accrue more advantage. (Though, says Kingwell, “at least they are still participating.”) What’s far more damaging is the work of “opters-out” and “spoil sports,” who retreat into the private realm and either don’t participate in the dialogue or try to stop the conversation all together. (Kingwell notably illustrated this point with a few compelling images of an imagined suburbia by Ross Racine).

2. Justice Issues in Diverse Cities

Justice becomes even more complicated when you factor in diversity.  The concepts of clustering and polarization are particularly interesting.  Kingwell points to the fact that in large, diverse cities, we’re seeing more injustice arise through our natural tendency to gravitate towards people who are similar to ourselves. Segregation, in this sense, has lead to an increasing disparity in wealth among neighbourhoods.  Referencing a map of Toronto as example, Kingwell illustrates the resulting disparity of access to public amenities between wealthy and poor neighbourhoods.  While the wealthiest enjoy access to rapid and efficient transportation, the poor are left to ride the bus, or increasingly dive or walk long distances to reach community amenities.

In most large cities, you see and feel very tangible boundaries between neighbourhoods – we think in terms of neighbourhoods rather than the city as a whole.  Neighbourhood boundaries can often illustrate notions of difference in a clear way – though not without contradictions. On one hand, research in England is suggesting that people are becoming less tolerant of differences, not more accepting (eschewing the ‘contact hypothesis’ that says the more contact we have with people of different backgrounds, the better we’ll get along).  On the other hand, we are also seeing the emergence of potential success stories through mixed-use (re) developments like Toronto’s Regent Park.

3. Public Space as a Public Good

Kingwell sums up a key point by referencing Christopher Alexander’s “sleep test” –  “the true test of a public space is if you could sleep there” (that is, if you can sleep somewhere in public and not be moved on by the police, that’s an authentic public space).

True public goods, suggests Kingwell, should be non-rival; which is to say, we, as citizens, should not have to compete for them. They should also be non-excludable, meaning that all members of society should have equal access.  But that’s not how public spaces in our cities have been emerging in practice.  Parks and streets are regulated to disallow many activities that are undesirable to those who hold power; benches are designed to specifically inhibit anyone laying on them; and so on.

4. Problem: Market Dominance

How we interact with common space speaks to the culture of entitlement that we’ve developed – we think of our private interests as untouchable by the public.  Kingwell refers to an “evisceration of shared services” whereby we think of ourselves as individuals first and a member of society second, when in fact it should be the reverse.  Our notion of self is, and should be, defined through our contact with others.  At this point Kingwell made a sharp aside to the main trope of zombie films, suggesting that we make the mistake of thinking think that we’re the ‘normal ones’ and that zombies are ‘out there, trying to get us.’ In fact, we are the zombies, consuming the world (or public goods, or public space) in a self-interested fashion.  The doctrine of individualistic consumption means that we are “already eating our brains from the inside” – all the while pointing the finger at the approaching zombies.

5. Rights of Way

Kingwell concluded with a call to action: we should be aiming for public justification of private space, not the other way around.  The philosopher believes that if we put the public first and private second, we’ll be taking a huge step forward in the quest to achieve public space for public good.  This conversation must take place to move this issue forward and create change.

We need, Kingwell suggests, to reconnect with our empathy for one-another (we he eloquently described as the ability “to be common with someone in their suffering; without you, I am nothing; unless you recognize me, I am no one”).  He spoke to the fact that, like the game of democracy, the discussion around public space is an infinite game of justification.  There are always moves to be made, and it’s not about individual outcomes but the overall process, which keeps moving forward, and continually returns us to that battleground between the private and public.

* * * * *

Where to go from here? Hopefully we all took something away from this lecture that we can translate into real life and challenge our current thinking.  For me, the message I’m seeing, in the neon glow of urban light, is this: we are here together; we are together here.

For further reading on this subject, check out:

Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space, Mark Kingwell and Patrick Turmel

A request from Gord Price at the City Program: Is there someone you’d love to see present at the SFU’s City Program?  SFU is looking for YOUR ideas and welcomes your suggestions.  Send them to city[at] sfu [dot] ca


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