Privatizing the Public Sphere
The privatization and fragmentation of space in post-industrial urban America is a widespread social problem. As society becomes even more globalized as a result of technological advances, the rampant spread of a privatized public realm is ever-increasing. Public space is needed as a center in which to bring people together to share a common place. It is within public spaces that public life unfolds and without public spaces such as parks, streets, and buildings, the mixing of classes will become increasingly uncommon. Society is made up of two sectors: the private and public, and it is essential that both remain separate entities. However, through the use of fear tactics especially the threat of violent crimes, privatized settings are spreading throughout the public sphere. In this analysis, it is my intent to explore the various tactics being used to impede upon the public sphere. In doing so, I will explore the causal factors that contribute to the increased privatization of urban public life.
Historically, the city was an all-encompassing entity. At the dawn of industrialization, large masses of people flocked to the city in hopes of a better economic life for themselves and their families. It was within the city limits, particularly closest to the areas of commerce and exchange that people took up residence, worked, and pursued various social activities. The city served the needs of all its citizens. However, as industrialization moved further along, there was a major shift in urban economics. While many businesses flourished, so did wealth and as this increased, society faced an evolving class system. Three notable classes emerged: the lower/working class, the middle class, and the upper/elite class. While these class divisions grew, a large amount of money was being invested in the creation of public venues. Public institutions were designed to bring education, culture, and in many ways, a sense of community to modern city life. A public park or library was a place that people of various classes could come together and share space. However, by the end of the Twentieth century and into the Twenty-First, true public space is becoming almost extinct, as is the middle class. Privatized public space has become the new trend across many American cities.
There are many interrelated factors that contribute to the elimination of a public sphere, these include but are not limited to: corporate ownership of property, gentrifying of neighborhoods, an ever increasing disparity between the rich and poor, and new landscape designs. All of these factors work cohesively with one another by instilling a sense of fear into the lives of everyday citizens. Society is becoming more and more policed through the use of surveillance cameras on public walkways, gated communities, but especially, through systematic approaches used to create the feeling that public spheres are unsafe and something to be feared.
Corporations are taking over the urban landscape. In previous years, many upper and middle class families fled to the suburbs to escape the everyday hustle of city life. However, in recent years, city living has become glamorized and thus the movement back into the city has increased. Once blighted inner-city neighborhoods are being taken over and revitalized by corporate leaders in hopes to redesign and yuppify these areas. As more money is put into the area, the higher the market value goes up and as a result, many local residents can no longer afford to live there. While these residents are pushed out, a more desirable group of residents move in and thus, take over. This process, known as gentrification, is occurring in many cities all across the nation. In the past, displaced residents could possibly move to another area that was not undergoing this process. However, as we are seeing in Chicago, it is nearing impossibility to move to an area within the city that will not be up for revitalization in the near future.As a result of this, many working class and poverty stricken persons and families are having a difficult time developing a communal base which in turn, is the basic denial that citizens should have to live and prosper within a community.
While corporate developments have changed the urban neighborhood, they have also greatly, if not more so, destroyed the public space of urban city centers. In Mike Daviss essay, Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space, he outlines the various ways in which the city is being privatized and the different techniques that those people in power are using to enforce such a trend. It has become an overt effort by city planners and corporate developers to keep out and ultimately criminalize those considered undesirable. Downtown areas are literally becoming exclusive to an elite class of people. Davis points out the ways in which L.A. is making the city bumproof by the new barrel shaped bus benches, which make it uncomfortable to sleep, the use of outdoor sprinklers equipped with automatic timers, enclosed or gated garbage cans, and the elimination of public restrooms (Sorkin, 162-163). These techniques are acting as agents in which to eliminate the homeless from the streets of L.A. Instead of trying to set up policies and programs that might aid and benefit homeless persons, the city is trying to get rid of the immediate problem. The problem is not that there are homeless people on city grounds but rather, that homelessness and poverty are widespread social problems that need to be addressed and dealt with on a local and national level.
Another aspect contributing to privatized public space is the new urban building and residential land design. The new design has created a barrier between the inside and the outside world. In many new, gated communities theres one way in and one way out. Surprisingly, these types of residences, which were once primarily located in the suburbs, are being built within city limits and within city centers.Another feature of the new urban design is the new architectural design of city buildings. In the past, a trip downtown for shopping or for going to a museum was a fairly simple task. However, it has become increasingly common for building and store entrances to be through parking lots or garages. Also store entrances are designed in such way that the only way to enter is through the larger structure of the building. Trying to go shopping downtown without going into the larger building to get to the store is near impossible. Instead, everyday consumers must walk past a security guard while typically under some sort of surveillance just to get into the store. There are extreme measures taken in hopes to weed out any, if not all, undesirables. Another aspect of architectural design is the creation of overhead walkways from one building to another. These walkways make it easier for those people already in the building to get from one place to the next, but for the outsider, it is an intimidating system. Also, these walkways are often under the eye of the ever-present surveillance camera. These overhead walkways are another attempt to keep a watchful eye on the activities of people.
While the city has become a private entity, it is important to look at the driving force behind this. The acceptance of privatizing the public is a manifestation of fear. If people were able to get from one place to the next without the eyes of the camera would the world be a safer place? Probably not. However, by creating the illusion of safety people somehow feel secure. Through the practice of barricading buildings, building high fences, and having a video camera present in all potentially public areas the idea of safety permeates throughout the city. The fear that is being instilled through these tactics is in reality, a fear of people and most notably, the differences among varying groups of people within society.
Since the emergence of industrialization, there have been class differences among people. However, as society moves further into the information age, class distinctions are becoming even more wide spread. As the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, so does access for the poor into the public realm. The decline of a middle class is affecting the structure of society because cities and public venues were once designed to serve the middle class. However, without such a class, cities are now being designed to service an elite class and it is this class that has the power and control over public life. With the widening division between classes, services to the non-elite members of society will continue to diminish.
The importance of public space and life is an important aspect of any given society. Without such spaces, society will continue to be dived among class lines. When a certain group of people hold power and its all about power and control, there will always be those that are excluded and denied access to the public sphere. As long as imaginary and irrational fears are instilled into the private lives of the public, society will continue to build fortress around its buildings and to use surveillance cameras outside the doors. Public space is a right to all citizens and due to fear of the unknown; it is diminishing right before our eyes. In this day and age, to be an American means to always be under the watchful eye of another.