This is a transcript of a talk given at the “Putting Public Space in its Place,” a Harvard Conference on Public Space, March 7–8, 2013. The presentation was a part of a session titled “Public Space, Democracy, and Equality: For the People, By the People, Of the People?” joined also by Maurice Cox and Peter Marcuse.
In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, there has been extensive discussion on the contemporary public space and the failure of society to support freedom of assembly and citizens’ right to the city. But freedom of assembly and access to public space is hardly the only issue when it comes to democracy [a political system] and equality [a social ideal].
If the closure of public space to political expression and dialogue comes as a shock to the Occupy protestors, consider the fact that subaltern social groups have long been excluded from the public domain — historically through the practice of racial segregation and non-participation in the political process, and today through other forms of regulation and control that are biased against the cultural practices of minority groups
Unequal allocation of open space between neighborhoods of different social and economic status, as in the case of the East Bay Regional Park District in the San Francisco Bay Area, is one example. Even the conventional public process today also privileges particular forms of communication and interactions over others. So perhaps the closure of Zuccotti Park was not that big a deal after all — with the same realization that the protesters, like the subaltern groups, were not deemed by the authority as members of the public that come with certain privileges.
Subaltern Public Space
In the absence of a supportive public realm (i.e., access to public space, allocation of public resources, and openness of the public process), subaltern groups have long found ways to create their own refuge — as in the case of hundreds of community gardens in New York, examples of community self-help against crime and vandalism and lack of open space in the neighborhood back in the 1970s, and specific instances such as Casita Gardens, generated by the cultural practices of the immigrant community and serving as expressions of cultural identity and solidarity against the odds.
And not just in New York, the (former) South Central Farm in Los Angeles (a 14-acre site in an industrial area) was another great example of placemaking by the subaltern groups — a place that provides food, safety, open space, family activities, self-reliance, and also organizing and coalition-building when it was threatened with eviction by the City authority. Although the farm no longer existed following the eviction, it stood once as a reminder of the possibilities of our urban landscapes.
In the Mullae neighborhood in Seoul, with the lack of open space to grow food, neighborhood residents developed a community garden on top of a five-story office building in an industrial neighborhood — a garden that provided residents from nearby high-rise apartment buildings with an opportunity to not only grow food but also socialize and build relationships with each other. Sensing the potential of urban gardens as an alternative form of green public space, Seoul Green Trust, a non-profit organization, has since been working on larger-scale “public farms,” including one on the site of a stalled opera house project in the middle of Han River.
But farming and gardening is hardly the only way marginalized social groups transform urban sites. In Hong Kong, the ground floor entrance to the Headquarters of HSBC is transformed every Sunday by hundreds of migrant workers into a gathering of friends whose presence transforms the meaning of this space — a space of global capital — into a space of global migrant workers. What is interesting in this case is not only the large gathering of migrant workers but also how the gathering sets the stage and enables labor activists to mobilize the workers and organize events to advocate for their rights — an exercise of participatory democracy and an example of scaling up.
These alternative forms of placemaking are not just contemporary phenomena, but also something you can find historically as well. One example is located along the historic Jongno in Seoul, a main East-West axis and thoroughfare used by Aristocrats during the Joseon dynasty. In the old days, commoners had to bow and pay respect to aristocrats riding on horses on the road. It got tiring for many commoners who then took a secondary path behind the main road. These paths were called Pimatgol which meant “Avoid Horse Alley.” Large portions of it are around there today. Over time, businesses developed, and the passages became an alternative social and business space for people.
In Tokyo, Yoyogi Park is one of the few large urban parks in the city that are popular among people of all ages, including young people. Its main entrance was probably best known to the outside world as the gathering place for the Elvis-inspired dancers (or Greasers) back in the 1980s. The park was also a popular place for live performances. For years, however, the authority has tried to clamp down on these activities, for example, by prohibiting the playing of live music, among many other activities (looking at the sign, you wonder what’s left to do in the park).
Instead of playing in the park, young musicians now play outside the park along the sidewalks turning it into a linear concert stage. Every Sunday at least twenty bands are playing along a 200-meter long strip, featuring different genres of music, from Jazz and Blues to Rock and metal.
Speaking of performance, Nanjing East Road in Shanghai is one of the most prominent and vibrant shopping districts in the city. The place is inundated by shoppers and tourists day and night. But for a few hours in the morning, before the department stores are open, the store entrances are taken over by local people for ballroom dancing. There are many tourists around with nothing to do. So they watch, and some begin to join as well, transforming the function and meaning of the department store entrances.
Community-Driven Public Space
Often, efforts in these alternative forms of placemaking not only happen outside the system but also within it. In San Diego, the Chicano Park is a great example of community-initiated open space, a story of a community reclaiming a space lost to the building of freeway — Interstate 5, back in the 1970s — and transforming it into an official park. Today, the park is actively used by the local residents for all kinds of social and recreational activities. These freeway columns that once represented a destructive force to the community have been repurposed by murals created by Chicano artists.
Working within the system has one advantage — the public agency has to pay for it. In this case, Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) paid for the restoration of the murals that symbolized the community resistance.
Projects of this nature have been a focus of my own work in Seattle as well — working with local communities in the Chinatown International District to make sure that park design is culturally responsive and participatory, and meets the specific needs of the immigrant groups. We do so through creative, participatory exercises — such as Design as Second Language — integrating a design game into an ESL (English as Second Language) lesson that elderly immigrants take every week. Design Buffett is another design game we have developed that builds on the skills that community members already have (like eating buffet meals).
More than just design and construction of new parks and open space, our focus has been on community capacity building, by supporting groups such as the Friends of International Children’s Park — which has been involved in continued maintenance and programming of the park following the completion of its renovation, through events and activities that continue to bring people to the park and making them feel welcome and engaged. More than just one project after another, we also work to support community organizations such as IDEA space — a community design and resource center that has since been managing projects, applying for grants, building consensus, and trust — a form of community development in conjunction with placemaking.
To conclude, how do we look at these efforts and everyday activities in the broader context of democracy, equality, and public space?
When it comes to placemaking by marginalized social groups, Nancy Fraser’s notion of counterpublics is an important one — one that contests the notion of a singular, generic, and universal public that fails to recognize the diversity of cultural practices and the needs for marginalized social groups to define and create public space on their own terms, and use them as the basis for community building and capacity building.
In other words, the examples I have shared with you today represent the making of counter-public spaces. They illustrate how subaltern or community-driven public spaces can provide opportunities for agency, actions, and the making of new meanings and relationships among individuals, groups, and the city at large. They also reveal how, through such agency embodies democracy and equality — as notions and practices not regulated institutionally but are instead carried out through everyday acts of placemaking.
Lastly, if there is one other important aspect worth mentioning, it is that the making and presence of these counter-public spaces also engender a dialectical space for us to question longstanding, institutionalized, and limited notions of public space, democracy, and equality. They serve as reminders that the actual practices of public spaces, democracy, and equality are always contested, and they may always be unfulfilled and incomplete at least until the moment that they are enacted.
March 8, 2013
 Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, 25/26: 56–80