The end of public space?

The “end of public space” thesis animated the study of public space decades ago and it seems relevant at this moment in the pandemic when our uses and perceptions of public space are shifting. This thesis draws attention to the creeping control over public space by corporations and government. It focuses on policies that restrict who can be in public space or the types of activities permitted, all in the name of public safety or gentrification. Don Mitchell, a geographer and cultural critic uses the thesis to invite scrutiny of the ways that these policies threaten the ability of public space to support grassroots association and popular expression. The thesis posits that public spaces free of control are critical for a functioning democracy. Mitchell proposes that access to unrestricted public space broadens who is included in the public. In turn, this allows communities to make claims on the wider collective for increased rights and freedoms or change for a more just and fair society. In this view, public space is vital for democracy because it enables popular expression, which is not always represented through formal politics.   

This deck is seemingly public, but a sign indicates that it is restricted for private use only.

Public health responses to COVID-19 pandemic and social uprising for racial justice in the Twin Cities present a compelling context for examining the continued relevance of the end of public space thesis. On the one hand, this moment has seen an increase in government control and business takeover of public space. We see this in the public health directives for halting the spread of COVID-19 (including prohibitions on gathering and staying physically distant, and wearing face coverings) and the appropriation of sidewalks and parking lots for bars and restaurants. At the same time, programming that otherwise activates public space for popular use has been canceled for the pandemic. This has contributed to making public space seem less vital or abandoned.

This sign, near the University of Minnesota campus, advises pedestrians to maintain a distance of 6 feet.

On the other hand, the pandemic has laid bare ongoing systemic inequalities that imperil the well-being and even survival of residents who are Black, Indigenous, and People of color. The appropriation of public space through popular demonstrations, murals and protest art on the street-facing sides of private buildings, and use to distribute food to people in need has raised awareness of the violence and harm these communities experience. Through these acts, society at large is called to imagine a more just and peaceful future and take concrete steps to realize it. These actions point to the continued vitality of public space despite the restrictions and urge us to formulate ways of thinking about public space that makes sense of these contradictions.  

Murals outside of Springboard For the Arts, an artist-led community and economic nonprofit in St. Paul.
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