In the face of explosive urban development, there is new confidence about reclaiming public space for the people. We explore how cities became a playground for experimentation
Public spaces have been at the heart of cultural and community life for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks designated certain squares as gathering places known as ‘agora’, while in classical Rome, you would head to ‘forums’ to take the temperature of political opinion.
As society’s ideas of governance have shifted, the concept of a ‘public city’ has also evolved. In many parts of the world, spaces historically assigned for social connection have vanished, often replaced by tower blocks: the glittering opaque glass of privatisation. And what has been the response to the loss of our lively streetscapes and hidden pockets of green? From London to Lebanon, spaces are being reclaimed.
Spaces historically assigned for social connection have vanished, often replaced by tower blocks: the glittering opaque glass of privatisation
Geographer David Harvey has described the freedom to make and remake our cities as “one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”. Once the development of ‘urban regeneration’ has taken hold, streets and open spaces are redefined as private land.
The widespread privatisation – and monetisation – of space isn’t only about the removal of land from under our feet. Public space protection orders, introduced by the UK government in 2014, criminalise activities such as busking and rough sleeping within a mapped area. At the same time, green spaces are under threat. Though the Heritage Lottery Fund estimates that 34 million people in the UK regularly visit parks, 45 per cent of local authorities are considering selling them off.
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