Public space is dead, long live public space
L’espace publique est mort, vive l’espace publique
Lo spazio pubblico è morto, viva lo spazio pubblico
Public space under attack
It is 2014. Europe has undergone 25 years of economic growth. It started with the disappearance of the Communist regimes. Then the neo-liberal system conquered the continent. Cities tried to key into international flows of capital and competed with one another for tourists, knowledge workers, creative enterprises and international head offices. Europe was inundated by privatisation. By now 70 per cent of public services – including public space – have passed into the hands of multinationals. The government has retreated into the wings and the cities have given up long-term visions.
Cities want to attract tourists. After all, tourists are ‘good for the local economy’. As a result, the cities have imperceptibly been turned into historical theme parks. The design of public spaces is geared to specific target groups, above all consumers. Repression and control impose curbs on spontaneous behaviour. European public space has become a comfortable, consumer-orientated seduction machine.
Institutes for Public Awareness
It is right now, when the public domain is about to go under, that international and local pressure groups have united. They are campaigning for the preservation of the democratic values of public space. The critical quantity of public space per citizen has been laid down in a UNESCO treaty. That quota offers protection against further privatisation and control. In addition, the Institute for Sufficient Publicness has been created in Europe to counter the formation of monopolies in public space. At the local level, many cities have set up bodies to protect public space and local identity.
This new wave of social alertness is called neo-localism. Neo-localism is the response to aggressive neo-liberalism and the dogmas of an exclusively economic perspective. Local governments support and adopt these movements. In doing so, they have rediscovered their public task.
Rotterdam Glocal District
The neo-local movement got off the ground in Rotterdam during the major restructuring of the city centre between 2000 and 2010, when the city had once again fallen under the spell of the tabula rasa concept. Driven exclusively by economic motives, large market parties had bought up every possible building location. This took place, it should be noted, during a period of sharp criticism of China because it had levelled its urban fabric of hutongs to make room for high-rise buildings. Yet the cultural liquidation in the cities of Europe was just as intense; there too relentless plans were made that were blind to cultural historical values, the local economy and the urban structure.
Rotterdam was no exception: a new, dazzling business centre was created to attract international head offices, while local and public interests were initially ignored. But the opposition from the populace and an intensive public debate have laid the foundation for a new alliance in which the local and the global are united. The result is the Glocal District.
In the Glocal District the city is developing in a different way: instead of shock-and-awe expansion, the present state of Rotterdam is taken as the starting point. Openings have been made in and between the 1960s buildings which have led to the creation of new connections. The renovated structures offer accommodation for local businesses and instances. The raised plinth at street level contains the Bazar Curieux, with small-scale enterprises from different ethnic communities. In this way, local art, handicrafts and skills, which were so often ignored in the preceding period, have moved back into the limelight. They form the literal and metaphorical foundation for international companies and institutes, which have been given the opportunity to erect large-scale offices on top of the existing buildings. The result is a public network of courtyards, passages, squares, rooftop gardens and bridges. They link the different scale levels entirely in line with the new public principles. The Glocal District has thereby become the icon of neo-localism, marking a turning point in the selling off of the public domain.
Name: Public Domain Campaign