06.04 Public realm and protest

The architecture of the public realm has always featured heavily in shaping the lives of its inhabitants. From spaces, monuments and public realm strategies implemented to emphasise the grandeur of the incumbent politicians, to the unregulated back streets, underpasses and dead end spaces which are such an ever present construct of the urban fabric.

For cities that play host to these extremes of spatial condition and therefore associated human activities; there develops the contested territories where individuals with different ideals, incomes, accents and appearance must navigate the disparate pursuits of others with whom they did not plan to engage. These urban constructs are prevalent throughout the global diaspora, and as such represent an opportunity for those relatively powerless individuals living within a contested territory to attempt to change existing constructs within a society. At times of social, political or economic crisis; the role of the architecture of the public realm to facilitate societal change comes into sharp focus. Tiananmen, Trafalgar, Independence or Tahrir square have exemplified this transformative quality of public space during the modern era (in Beijing, London, Kiev and Cairo respectively) to name but a few

The inherent shortcomings of the methods of exchange and production employed by the global financial system which have led to the global economic crisis, and in turn the Euro zone crisis. This has meant that those individuals, communities and nations who suddenly found themselves on an economic path that they did not foresee; desperate to express their disapproval for the limitations in their life trajectories that these crises’ have enforced. People suddenly realised the necessity to claim their right to the city. As such there has been a steady increase of protest activity from the citizens of the nation’s most severely affected by the crises’.

Virtual forms of protest have been frequent, but are limited in their ability to truly facilitate unscheduled exchanges between unaffiliated parties, instead they often reinforcing hierarchies and power structures prevalent in structured, physical society. Virtual forms of protest can only really start to create change when used to facilitate activity within the public realm. However the ability of that public realm to continue to express the desires of the public has; in recent decades been curtailed. In short; the activity of public realm protest is not as effective as it used to be. This change has not come about by chance; it is as the result of an ideology that has spread across both sides of the house of representatives, it is the adoption of a long term strategy that marginalises the ability of the citizen population to disrupt and therefore effect real direct change within society. As such it is a dilution of democracy.

The 1970s and 80s saw a succession of legislation to disrupt and ultimately undermine the power of unions to influence politics and therefore society. Although these restrictions were legislative they had far reaching spatial consequences (such as the restriction on the number of picket lines). Similarly public realm control measures, the introduction of terror laws of the 1990s and 2000s have cumulated in restricting the activities of the individual within the public realm and civic society (such as the act prohibiting demonstrations within a kilometre of any point in parliament square). In one regressive act, several modes of representation have simply disappeared from our landscape. Coupled with these substantive changes  comes the policy mass privatisation of public space (which has prevailed since the 1960s but accelerates which each passing decade). This results in the reduced of the very crop of public space for society to experience social exchange as opposed to mere consumption. In addition, the introduction of spatial control constructs utilized by law enforcement officials such as  the pre-emtive spatial control measures represented by Kettling and the employment of exclusion zones in areas previously demarcated as public space; no geographic location in the westernised world is the deterioration of dēmokratía clearer than in the UK.

Architecture is and always will be contingent on the factors which surround it and no clearer is this than when looking at the issues of political, legislative and spatial strategies as outlined above. When protest activity is de-contextualised from the contested territories which its activity desires and necessitates, not only does the public realm cease to function but so does the only recourse to democracy, a direct democracy. In our neo-liberal societies we create private spaces which in visual appearance and spatial layout seem public; but in effect restrict the citizen’s ability to express themselves and explore the city through unscheduled exchange. Canary Wharf, Whitehall, Liverpool One, and Paternoster Square are examples which have recently come into sharp focus. Increasingly these are spaces where private managers and owners operate from a virtual (and in some occasions physical) list or activities which are permitted. If your activity isn’t on the list then your right to be here is rescinded. Public space is fast become a place where consumption and transit are the virtues with all other activities vied with scepticism and ultimately exclusion. This undermines the very fabric of civic society; where the unplanned and unscheduled interaction between strangers leads to personal exchanges (without commercial value). We need to reverse the predilection for exclusion and again re-engage with the understanding that the public realm only acts as such when its boundaries are being tested; when civilians utilize it to express their desires or disillusionment. This is not to deem their actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but to understand them for what they are. The public realms need to exist, they need to be unscheduled spaces of expression, they are our Agora, and as such need to operate as contested territories to have any real value to society, democracy and the notion of representation.


This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

Leave a Reply