Public space is a difficult concept to grapple with because there is no straightforward definition of what the word ‘public’ means. Most people today would probably define public space as that space used in common by the general population. However, even definitions as simple as this can be problematic, for the word ‘public’ has a range of concurrent meanings. What kinds of things are ‘public’? We might call an event or celebration in an open area of a city ‘public,’ in contrast to an invite-only affair (Habermas, 1989). But whilst certain kinds of ‘public buildings’ like libraries are open to anyone, others have restricted access. Town Halls, for instance, offer only limited and controlled access to members of the public even though they exist for the public (Latham et al., 2009). Here, ‘the public’ appears roughly “synonymous with other entities, such as ‘the people’, ‘the community’, or even ‘the nation'” (Barnett, 2008: 2). The ‘publicness’ of these spaces is not about their use but their ownership—the opposite of which can be said of the space of the shopping mall. Legally speaking shopping malls are private property, and owners have the right to exclude who they please. But in terms of everyday experience, they are open to, and animated by, the public (Latham et al., 2009). These examples suggest that the quality of ‘publicness’ consists of the relationships established between spaces and the people who inhabit, use and create them (Staeheli & Mitchell, 2008).
Another sense of the word ‘public’ refers to the idea that some things must be practised out in the open and with complete freedom of participation for anyone. Here, public space is represented as an open forum that encourages mingling between people of different classes, races, religions, ideologies, and cultures (Harvey, 1992; Ruppert, 2006). These encounters ensure the maintenance of a “thick fabric of heterogeneity” (Mitchell, 2003: 19), and foster such values as mutual respect, tolerance and civil discourse (Ruppert, 2006). In his seminal work The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre imagines cities as oeuvre—collective works in which all citizens must participate. In such open and accessible public spaces and forums, “one should expect to encounter and hear from those who are different, whose social perspectives, experience and affiliations are different” (Young, 1990: 119). For Lefebvre, cities were necessarily public places in which different people with different projects necessarily struggle with one another—over the shape of the city, over the terms of access to the public realm, and even over the rights of citizenship (Mitchell, 2003). Out of this struggle the city as an oeuvre—a collective work of participation—emerges (Purcell, 2003).
These values of openness, plurality and participation make cities and public spaces central to the practise of democratic politics (Sennett, 1974). Jürgen Habermas’ (1989) theorisation of the public sphere underpins this ‘republican’ tradition of thinking (Latham et al., 2009). For Habermas, the public sphere is an abstract, universally accessible space: an arena in which democracy occurs through collective debate and deliberation (Ruppert, 2006).