Public space: collective common or virtual reality?

Friday 6 November, 21.30 until 23.00, Maus Hábitos, Rua Passos Manuel 178, 4º Piso, 4000-382 Porto International Satellites

Tickets: €3, pay on the door. Attend this event and What is creativity? for €5.

After much talk in recent years of the public sphere moving online, there’s a resurgence of interest in the physical world. ‘Public spaces, not virtual town squares, are still the places where uprisings are decided’, declared the New York Times of the events that took place in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. In many cities, it is culture and heritage that have provided a framework for public space interventions. From Paphos to Porto, whether it is UNESCO protected heritage centres or EU-funded Capital of Culture initiatives, municipalities and architects focus on public space design, streetscaping and pedestrianisation schemes as a way to promote and develop city life. The result, claims Porto Mayor Rui Moreira, is that ‘people are going back to public space’ and we are seeing the emergence of the ‘post-Facebook society’.

For critics, however, many regeneration initiatives mean cities are merely becoming gentrified and privatised, raising questions as to who is benefiting from the public investment. After all, if culture and heritage are merely seen as a route to urban competitiveness, is there not a risk that cities become merely profit-oriented, with market exchange and touristic development taking priority over building communities and boosting civic creativity? And given the rise of gated communities and exclusive areas dominated by restaurants and bars, is the collective commons fragmenting into elite urban spaces on one hand, and left-over space for the disenfranchised on the other?

Yet the question remains as to what actually is public space and who is it for? Writer Anna Minton’s essay on the Creative Commons advocates for a ‘public good’ based on the reinvention of the common interest, which should emphasise ‘the social value and social consequences of schemes for communities’. But who is to determine what these values are? Is common consent the same as democratic legitimacy? Hannah Arendt wrote that public space is where people act rather than work: ‘it is a space where political action takes place urged by freedom and the need for self-realisation of the individual’. But if public space is the arena where we, the public, make something of ourselves, then do we really need public authorities to cultivate engagement through public space?  To what extent can public space create a public? Should public space have to bear this burden at all?

Ana Castro
graphic designer; CEO, Circus Network

Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Teresa Novais
partner, aNC arquitectos

André Tavares
chief curator, Lisbon Architecture Triennale

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Joana Varajão architect, RA\\ Architecture & Design Studio
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