Rethinking public space

Are we glimpsing the end of public space amidst the COVID-19 pandemic? Without a doubt, official action to curb the pandemic has ushered in new regulations that restrict the use of public space as well as how many people may gather. Likewise, organizations have either cancelled or postponed festivals, fairs, and other programming that activate public spaces. As a result, the public spaces along University Ave often appear dormant as fewer people are using them and mostly as a way to travel to another destination. 

Against this backdrop of restriction and abandonment, we see public spaces serve a vital role in popular struggles that have gained new momentum and attention during the pandemic. Streets, parking lots, and open fields along University Avenue have been used to collect and redistribute food to people facing food insecurity when grocery stores suddenly closed during the uprising after George Floyd’s death. Protest art and demonstrations also use these everyday spaces to announce popular grievances, call for change, and imagine an alternative future. The pandemic has laid bare the social inequalities and racial injustice of everyday life in the United States and calls for radical change on these matters have been voiced in and through the public spaces of the street and capitol mall. These moments speak to the fact that public space continues to be both a setting for giving voice to popular struggle and a site through which popular movements gain visibility and disseminate their messages. In other words, public space is both product and medium for people’s politics and so we surely are not seeing the end of public space during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Demonstrators calling for police reform assemble on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, June 18, 2020

We are, however, witnessing new approaches to political struggle that call on us to think differently about public space. Our study of University Avenue supports urbanist David Brain’s recommendation to see public space as a civic practice that has both material and spatial dimensions. That is, he asks us to think of public space as a physical space that is created when people strive to connect a specific location with a broader effort to shape collective life. This could be the collective life in a neighborhood, city, country or the world. In the Twin Cities, we see that the installation of protest art and popular memorials along movement spaces of University Avenue increases its visibility and connects specific people and neighborhoods to national campaigns for racial justice. Moreover, the frequent hashtag references to online conversations invite in-depth interaction beyond what is represented in a particular art piece. The art pieces we observed on University Avenue show how people have created new opportunities to center calls for racial justice in US society. At the same time, social media platforms loom large in the effort to influence public awareness and elevate previously marginalized perspectives in public discourse. Public space emerges in these efforts. It exists in both the material world of city streets and the online world of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Social media platforms are increasingly important in the communication of organized social movements

This reinvention of public space is born out of necessity. It is a response to re-center popular politics at a moment when social distancing practices seem to limit the potential of what has worked before. Will this shift outlast the pandemic or it be confined to it? Regardless, the ongoing use of social media by popular movements is fraught with concern. Are the privately-controlled spaces of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook another vehicle bringing us to the end of public space? Surely, these social media platforms offer little support for civil conversation, yet they are conducive to sharing and consuming information, and that may be enough to frame an issue as a matter of public concern and expose people to different perspectives. And still, these platforms are problematic. They are prone to disinformation campaigns and can amplify falsehoods. The platforms’ dependency on advertising revenue also makes them susceptible to control and regulation in the name of profit. Current movements for racial justice have nevertheless found these platforms helpful, using them to advance their agenda and engage more and more people. At the same time, the online activity is a bridge to street-level action. Images and messages associated with these demonstrations and activities are disseminated online and may further inspire on-the-ground action in another place, continuing the cycle. In this we see that public space continues in and through the ongoing struggle of popular movements to prod collective action however and wherever that takes shape. COVID-19 is not prompting the end of public space, but it is spurring its reinvention.