i want to take a minute to talk about public space. the topic has come up, or been hinted at, or alluded to, in a couple of my lectures already this term, and so i want to unpack it a little bit.
this is a big topic, and i need to start somewhere, so i’ll start in zucotti park. as everyone knows, this was the public space where occupy wall street set up camp in september 2011. we’ve all seen the images of this supposedly joyful occupation, with drum circles and banners and peace and love- those speaking for the 99% reappropriating an urban space which purportedly belongs to them. the whole event was rife with symbolism, exactly as its authors/organizers intended: an occupation not by an occupying army, but instead by civilians. an occupation not of a city, or a building or base, not of a ‘productive’ edifice- but that of a common space. wall street banquiers are encamped in glass concrete towers- why should the people not camp in a park? occupying public space in explicit resistance to free-market capitalist injustices seems worthy, no?
what we might not know, however, is that the park is in fact private property. many, many places we believe to be public are not, in fact, public at all. a Manhattan judge ruled that the owner of the park, Brookfield Properties, had effectively the right to demand the occupiers off their private property, and, as a legal ruling, this decision could impel the police to disperse similar encampments on similar properties. even places we believed to be wilderness, true wilderness, are owned and operated by private entities, entities which don’t always inhabit the space in question. are parks not public then? certainly not all parks are. even nominally public ones are owned and operated by the government. but then how is it that when we envision a ‘public space’, ‘park’ appears close to the top of the list?
i have a theory. a french friend once told me that in france, virtually every park worth the name in an urban centre will have a sign saying ‘keep off the grass’, and that this sign is, generally, respected. i, in canada, can count on one hand the number of parks i’ve seen with such a sign, and can safely assume it would be roundly ignored. in europe, it would appear, walkers follow the paths laid out for them, while here we trace desire lines (french). so the theory? there a park is imagined as something constructed, an urban feature subject to urban rules, completely distinct from the ‘wild’ outside the cities. here, however, a park is a piece of the wild which has been surrounded by the city, but which is not a part of it- a place where we take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and help make it better than we found it. a park is not a piece of art to passively consume, but a piece of the wild to actively sculpt.
this is besides the point, however. if a park is not a true public space, poetry aside, then what is? the academy, we may be tempted to say. that’s to say, the ensemble of public education institutions ranging from the tiniest elementary school in the suburbs to the National Library. these are places of learning, of reflection, where the ‘product’ is a deeply public one- the creation and sharing of knowledge. this was the theory, of course, behind the Maple Spring. This movement was a reaction to the commercialization of education, leading to drastically inflated student fees, in the context of a climate of global austerity led by ratings agencies and the IMF. Activists moved to occupy the spaces where they are students and teachers to demonstrate their power in the same way the Occupiers demonstrated theirs.
the validity of the tactic totally aside, some students learned that the academy is not public space either (despite of the public interest of the work performed therein) when the police arrested 16 of them (french) in august, just as the fall semester was due to start. the students had not yet voted to end their strike, and so on the first day of classes, they went to picket. they were removed for violating a court injunction. here again, we see the law overruling the ‘democratic’ will of the people concerning how the space they occupy is to be used. i have reflected before on the role of the police in interacting with demonstrations, and i don’t mean to make ‘cops busting in all over the place’ the focus of this piece. the point is that in the academy, just as in parks, a ‘public’ space whose form and use is believed to be controlled by its occupants, is not always so free.
so where to look then for public space? there is one bold proposition, and that’s to look to the street. the roads are by and large owned by the city, a democratic entity that in theory is the manifestation of the will of the people. there is no restriction on who can enter them and how long they can stay for. there are rules surrounding the conduct of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, but these are not of the same order, mostly, as ‘trespassing’ and ‘mischief’, i can attest that the street can be made public, but only for so long- the critical mass of people needed to effectively occupy a space built to scale for cars, not people, where nothing grows and no freshwater flows, can not remain in place forever. the road, of course, can be shut down too.
it seems that maybe there is no true public space remaining to us, or at least, none within easy walking distance of our homes. so what recourse do we have if we are to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau in his essay ‘Walking‘ “go forth on the shortest walk (…) in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms”? Asks Thoreau, “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”
Maybe we can play in a different kind of road. The bridge between physical and digital space is rickety, and the chasm is deep, so we will just leap across it all in one bound- the unregulated internet is the best approximation of the unsculpted wilds left within easy reach. I diverge, of course, from Thoreau here- his essay writes about the appreciation of the beauty of the physical world, and we have thus left him on the physical side of the chasm. But on this side, the digital side, we can see an ideascape early in its formation. There is a resonance that these movements preaching reoccupation and decolonization of physical space find online: Occupy, the Maple Spring, and now IdleNoMore all draw major support from online activists, and it is these online activists who contribute mostly directly to continuing media coverage. This is obviously not to disparage grassroots organizers and activists on the ground: without their efforts there would be nothing to cover. It remains, however, the ‘social media’ side of things driving awareness, drawing eyeballs, and helping it blow up into a mainstream issue worthy of coverage by mainstream press.
It is interesting because an analogy can be drawn between the physical landscape we inhabit, covered with structures, denuded of trees, devoided of wilderness, and the mental landscape we construct around it- papered in advertising, bound by laws, and sculpted by dogma. More rightly, the two landscapes are radically permeable to each other, and the system formed by both in combination has properties not present in either of the parts. What would we think of consumerism if not for the environmental destruction it brings? What would we care of climate change if not for the threat it poses to the established order? The world we live in and the ideas we have about it are not the same thing, but neither can be totally understood in the absence of the other.
this work will not be easy, certainly no easier than reappropriating physical space. i myself am taking small steps. i don’t have the technical ability to make a real change in this direction, but i am trying to move my sites to low-impact platforms free from ads. I myself lack the technical skills to open up the digital world and to make it truly public, to promote a free, fair exchange which occurs on no-one’s playing field, but a shared one. There are others who have those skills. There are others like Aaron Swartz who have tried and been smashed by a system that mistrusts a space it can’t exert dominion over. On the internet, there are no weapons, only ideas- though to some the latter are much more dangerous than the former. For this reason, the simple reason that the ideas we share in this digital space can be fashioned into the tools to save our world from catastrophe. Let’s take some small steps now so we can run when the time comes.
Indeed, we should all play in the road- play in every road available to us. If the physical world and the digital one are interpermeable, changes in one will affect the other. If I bring my casserole or my red square or my feather into the physical street with me, I can open a new branch off the digital one. If I write a new idea in chalk on a digital wall, I can encourage someone to hop over a physical one. If we inhabit space mindfully, whether in person or online, we can start to change the architecture.