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The Fight for Public Space: Selected Resources

The following list was first published on August 29, 2005. A second version, with an introduction, appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Counterpoise (Vol. 9, No. 4). Today’s update includes new resources.

Homeless people who reside in urban areas are frequent targets of ordinances that restrict their use of public space. Such regulations—often approved by local governments in deference to commercial interests—contribute to what some describe as a “brutal public sphere.”

Without affordable housing and an adequate social safety net, low-income citizens who possess no private space must consequently live their lives in public. And they are criminalized for having to do so.

The control of public space, however and on whomever it is rendered, impacts constitutional rights. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and with the authority provided by the USA PATRIOT Act, law enforcement agencies at all levels have routinely exhibited aggressive and repressive actions in response to free expression in public places.

Among other absurdities, various city leaders have devised “designated free speech zones” that effectively “quarantine dissent.” As geographer Don Mitchell has noted,

Dissident speakers have to remain outside the mall that has become the new public space of the city; they must remain at a distance from the politicians and the delegates they seek to influence; they must picket only where they will have no chance of creating a meaningful picket line.

Below are selected resources that address the fight(s) for public space. They touch on different issues, forces, and people. They also speak to what you can do to support (and express) constitutional and human rights.

Transfer: The Anti-Sit Archives
This photo archive features examples of anti-homeless measures rendered on New York City’s urban landscape. Property owners and city managers construct elaborate cages around sidewalk steam grates and affix spiked rails to window ledges, planter boxes, and fire hydrants with the express purpose of preventing citizens—homeless or not—from lingering.

“A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities”
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH)
“An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.” The study surveys laws and practices in 224 cities and features a Top 20 list of “meanest cities.”

“People Need Their Civil Rights Protected”
Bringing America Home: The Campaign
This document maintains that people “should not be criminalized or face injustice as a result of their housing status” and “should have the right to vote regardless of housing status.” It forms part of a “national, broad-based initiative … dedicated to the goal of ending homelessness. The Campaign is founded on the principles … that people need affordable housing, livable incomes, health care, education, and protection of their civil rights.”

“Exposure to the Homeless Increases Sympathetic Public Attitudes”
American Sociological Association (ASA)
A February 2004 study “looked at exposure through four dimensions: third-party information, observation in public places, interaction with homeless people, and having been or knowing someone who is or has been homeless … all four forms of exposure promote sympathetic attitudes toward homelessness … Also, people who have more exposure to homelessness tend to attribute homelessness to structural causes as opposed to individual causes.”

The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space
Don Mitchell (The Guilford Press, 2003)
“This provocative work asserts that the right to public space is crucial to advancing the cause of justice. Complex yet comprehensible, the book balances the ideas of legal scholars, cultural theorists, and social scientists with Mitchell’s singular voice based on his extensive thinking and research in the area. Mitchell thoughtfully argues that the struggle for rights actually produces public space and thus insists that rights be taken seriously, especially by leftist scholars, as they are central to counteracting exclusionary practices and the pervasive power of the state.”

Street People and the Contested Realms of Public Space
Randall Amster (LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2004)
“This work explores the social and spatial implications of homelessness in America. Increasingly, commentators have lamented the erosion of public space, charting its decline along with the rise of commercialization and privatization … [T]he author explores patterns and interconnections among: the impetus of urban development and gentrification; the enactment of anti-homeless ordinances and regulations; the material and ideological erosion of public space; and emerging forces of resistance to these trends.”

“Keeping the ‘Public’ in Public Space”
Project for Public Spaces (PPS)
“Public spaces have always gone hand in hand with commerce. Markets, vendors, and retailers are essential components of many a great place. But when does vibrant economic activity cross the line and become crass commercialization? Everywhere we look people who manage parks and squares are struggling with this question … ”

“Selling Out: Our Public Space, Universal Services Under Assault”
Ralph Nader
“The loss of free-standing library structures and their landscaping means families and individuals entering and leaving libraries must navigate between people with shopping bags and carts negotiating adjacent stores, parking, and all the noise. Commercial minds do not appreciate the sanctuaries of such public institutions. They do understand dependency, however, as well as the proverbial foot in the door toward privatization …”

Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy
John Buschman (Libraries Unlimited, 2003)
“This work presents a thorough examination of librarianship and the social and economic contexts in which the profession and its institutions operate … Buschman asserts that a significant shift has occurred from the library as a contributor to the public good to a model where economic rationality directs policy. He challenges much of the current thinking and assumptions guiding libraries, exploring the circumstances in which librarians and libraries operate and linking the profession back to democratic and public purposes as the core essence of the field.”

“On Libraries and the Public Sphere”
John Buschman
“Thinkers as varied as the management guru Henry Mintzberg and the media critic Neil Postman have arrived at similar conclusions: we are a society out of balance. One system of thinking about society and its problems and one method of solving them—economics—has come to dominate as a public philosophy … The educational philosopher Maxine Greene writes reminding us that ‘nowhere is it written’ that we are required to organize ourselves ‘in response to the demands of the Pentagon or to those obsessed with exploiting markets overseas.’ To accede to that purpose robs the society we serve of an important, if ineffable, resource …”

“The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly, and Dissent: A National Lawyers Guild Report on Government Violations of First Amendment Rights in the United States (2004)” (PDF)
Heidi Boghosian
With a foreword by Lewis Lapham, this report cites ‘a long list of incidents in which various law enforcement agencies … have deployed one or another of increasingly sophisticated methods of intimidation (checkpoints, rush tactics, pop-up lines, containment pens, mass and false arrests, etc.) meant to negate the freedoms of speech and silence the voices of dissent” in the public sphere. The NLG finds that “rights of free assembly and free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution are simply no longer available to the citizens of this country.”

“The Liberalization of Free Speech: or, How Protest in Public Space Is Silenced”
Don Mitchell
”[C]ontemporary speech laws and policing effectively silence dissident speech in the name of its promotion and regulation. As the [Supreme] Court has moved away from a regime that penalizes what is said—in essence liberalizing free speech—it has simultaneously created a means to severely regulate where things may be said, and it has done so … in a way that more effectively silences speech than did the older regime of censorship and repression.”

“People in the Streets: The Promise of Democracy in Everyday Public Space”
Greg Smithsimon
“A key prerequisite for a democratic society, [public] settings are where we take organized political action, and meet and learn about the society of which we are a part. One challenge, for planners and improvers from the 1890s to today, has been to translate that article of faith into a compelling argument that public space is the rich soil from which a democracy society grows. Explaining public space’s crucial role–both for organized political activity and through its everyday uses–is crucial to building popular support for the development and protection of vital space that many Americans aren’t even sure they want …”

“Sidewalk Democracy: Municipalities and the Regulation of Public Space”
A. Loukaitou-Sideris, Evelyn Blumenberg, and Renia Ehrenfeucht
“Today sidewalk democracy remains contested as design and regulatory strategies have serious constitutional implications for First Amendment speech and assembly rights …”

Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space
Margaret Kohn (Routledge, 2004)
According to reviewer Zachary Callen, “Kohn embarks on a historical/descriptive analysis of the changing form of public space in contemporary American society. Through this discussion, she interrogates the rise of ‘private spaces’ that are replacing ‘public’ venues. Kohn’s second preoccupation is more theoretical. In this voice, she focuses on the normative importance of public spaces for a thriving democracy. In both of these efforts, Kohn’s contribution is valuable, reinforcing the importance of public space for the production of healthy democratic citizens.”

The Politics of Public Space
Setha Low and Neil Smith, eds. (Routledge, 2005)
“Public spaces are no longer democratic places where all people are embraced and tolerated, but instead centers of commerce and consumption. Increasing privatization through collaborative public/private partnerships between municipalities and local businesses has transformed such places as Bryant Park and Union Square in the center of New York City into environments maintained by video surveillance and police control … The linkage between public space and the globalizing political economy deserves closer scrutiny because societal mobilization about public space influences … democratic participation.”

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