Setha Low “The Erosion of Public Space and the Public Realm”


What Does public mean? Who do public spaces (streets, sidewalks, parks, etc.) belong to? Who defines their use? Seath Low argues that the control and use of public space is determined by homeowners, power elites, corporations, local government and city planners. These “public” spaces have become privatized, excluding certain groups from utilizing them. Preventing disenfranchised groups from entering and utilizing public spaces further alienates these marginalized groups, removing from the public eye altogether.

Discouraging use of public space by all groups removes the chances for social interaction and exchange of ideas. No longer will diverse groups interact and learn from each other. Setha Low states that through the privatization of public space, Americans are losing valuable public space within our cities that serve as hubs for political and social action. Privatization occurs when private groups acquire public space, forcefully limit access and utilization thorough extraneous rules, such as limiting the number of shopping bags and sitting on landscaped seating walls (both are clearly geared toward homeless) and heavily surveil those that do enter.

sonyLow presents specific instances of privatization of New York City’s public spaces including the World Trade Center Memorial, which was turned in to another “cemetery” according to battery Park City residents. Through interviews, residents had expressed their preference to have greater economic vitality by encouraging more businesses and visitors. Concerns of the residents were not taken into consideration when the memorial was eventually constructed.

Low and colleagues performed ethnographic studies at parks, historic sites, and beaches and from that research, developed principles that encourage cultural diversity in urban parks and historical sites, especially as they relate to retain the history of culturally diverse groups. Creating space to encourage diverse interactions is important in retaining positive characteristics of the urban life.

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