The politics of public spaces

“In great cities, spaces as well as places are designed and built: walking, witnessing, being in public, are as much part of the design and purpose as is being inside to eat, sleep, make shoes or love or music. The word citizen has to do with cities, and the ideal city is organized around citizenship — around participation in public life,” Rebecca Solnit writes in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

I’m convinced that Solnit and I are soulmates. Her book is helping me understand exactly what I mean when I say I’m studying “urban policy and development.” Solnit addresses city planning as a lover of communities, public spaces and grassroots movements. For her, all good cities must be walkable; they must possess street corners and squares for citizens to demonstrate, for street musicians to play, for spontaneous interactions to take place, for parades and processions and even for beggars and prostitutes to exist.

She also believes cities and public spaces must serve all inhabitants and visitors. Oftentimes, cities are built to serve the needs of straight, white, cisgender men, and anyone who exists outside this narrow spectrum is largely unwelcomed from public spaces: ridiculed, harassed, assaulted or arrested simply for existing.

Furthermore, many cities, especially newer ones, are often built around cars, rather than people, with the intention of minimizing traffic delays and making commutes easier. Some of the most obvious examples are Los Angeles and Detroit. In contrast, Paris, an old city with many streets that are too narrow for driving, was built largely for people, and consequently, has a long and continuing history of revolutions and demonstrations that take place on its public streets. The fact that Paris is both walkable and known for its political and social activism, Solnit argues, is no coincidence.

The very nature of the car keeps people separated from one another. Unlike public transportation, biking or walking, cars physically separate people from others in their community. Often one cannot even see other people in cars, making it impossible to form connections or feel empathy for one another. Sadly, many cities still lack public transportation — or some cities only have it in wealthier neighborhoods.

Capitalist societies place so much emphasis on private things and private spaces, like cars and homes and front lawns. In contrast, it perceives that public spaces encourage criminal activity, like begging and “loitering.” But who really benefits from privatization, and who gets hurt?

As Karl Marx famously noted, the ideas of the ruling class are always the ruling ideas. Indeed, it seems our society values cars and private property, and devalues public spaces, in order to serve the ruling class — those who can afford cars and private housing, those who want to minimize the number of street corners and public spaces in order to reduce “criminal activities” in their cities.

It’s time we started valuing public spaces, public transportation and everyone’s right to them in every city. We need to listen to the voices of Black Lives Matter activists, to SlutWalkers and to all other social movements that demand their rights to public spaces and take back what should’ve been theirs all along.

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