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Public Space: Decreasing Democracy

Recently I saw some people lighting candles and laying roses by a flagpole. The flag was flying half-mast, its colors were blue and yellow. These people were grieving for the victims fell at the protests in Ukraine.

I had never really paid attention to these flags before, it was not only the Ukrainian but also those of Belarus, the EU, and the UN. Several embassies and a medical research institute are located in the building between my house and my regular supermarket.

The group was not large, about six to seven people. Not all of them Ukrainian, one of them was Russian, another Polish. Seeing them reminded me of the importance of public space. It’s a place that allows room for protest, celebration and, as in this case, grievance. It is a place where we can ventilate our feelings and share them with others. That is the beauty of public space.

In contrast, private space does not allow us this fundamental freedom. This may seem obvious: we would probably call the police if people started lighting candles in our backyard or have a celebration there.

However, sometimes the lines between what is public and what is private are not that clear. In edition 122 of The Urbanist, broadcasted at the 13th of February, one of the guests was Anna Minton. She described the process of the privatization of public space in the UK, space that looks public, but isn’t.

According to Minton private estates are nowadays the template for most development in the UK. As an example she gives Canary Wharf, London. Local governments are pursuing these kinds of development, because by that they no longer are responsible for its maintenance. However, it also creates a different fabric, there are restrictions to access and behaviour, in short: these places are no longer democratic. A private owner may allow a peaceful protest by schoolchildren, against the closing of a local library, but it doesn’t have to. Therefore Minton says that democracy is being treated as an optional extra. The reason why nobody protests against this: it is a slow and almost invisible process.

This is a critical debate in preventing the democratic decrease of public spaces. I believe that when developers take part in creating “public” spaces, people should have the same rights as in regular public spaces.

I had to check the detailed development plan to see if the space was public, it wasn’t. These people did not have the right to grieve there and if the owner wanted them gone, one phone call would have been enough.

(Images: Sascha Benes)


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