public space/commons/city

pu·blic space 

noun \ˈpə-blik ˈspās\

a democratically accessible social space in which people can debate critically and reason freely; carefully designed to supervise or restrict social interaction of the marginalized and non-governed.


Fig. 1a    Anti-sleep benches restrict use of piblic space and specifically target the homeless population in their design.


Fig. 1b    The Arab Spring protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Public space, in the notion that it is of the people, democratizes space even in places where Democracy is hardly found and social interactions are regularly highly supervised, creating a politically charged space and concept.


Fig. 1c   Digital spaces is a democratic forum through which its users are free to engage in critical debate thereby becoming a public space; activity on these sites, however, is often regulated, restricted, and controlled.  This political and cultural resource may also be exploited for the private gain of a select few (such as the sale of data); see commons.



noun \ˈkä-məns\

the cultural and natural resources upon which the welfare and safety of the whole of a community depend; privatized for the gain of select  individuals at the cost of the community.


Fig. 2    Viable resources such as water, though nominally owned collectively, are subject to monopolization when the means for accessing and distributing those resources are in the hands of individual owners.


noun \ˈsi-tē\

A relatively large and permanent settlement with complex infrastructural systems for sanitation, utilities, land use, housing, and transportation that greatly facilitates daily life of individuals belonging to that city; non-conforming individuals are excluded from these services and therefore, from the city.


Fig. 3a   A boy in Mumbai, India walks into an open toilet on stilts where the waste goes directly into an open water source. Such is the informal infrastructure of shanty towns where the most marginalized citizens (and non-citizens) must provide the  services at the neglect of their city.

Fig. 3b   Trailer parks are semi-permanent, often marginalized offshoots of cities that must generally develop their own infrastructure and services; their mobility directly challenges the notion of a fixed and static city.



Fig. 1a: High Back Anti-Homeless Bus Bench, April 15, 2012, accessed September 15, 2013,

Fig. 1b: “Public Space Powered Democracy,” Project For Public Spaces, Feb. 23, 2011, accessed September 15, 2013

Fig. 2: “Coke-Sponsored Rover Finds Evidence of Dasani on Mars,” The Onion, March 24, 2004, accessed September 16, 2013,,1146/

Fig. 3a: “In India, A toilet shortage drains the economy,” Businessweek, Sept. 9, 2013, Accessed September 15, 2013,

Fig. 3b: Erik Jacobs, “Waiting in Fear in Government Trailers,” The Boston Globe, September 3, 2006, accessed September 15, 2013,




Barbara Zukowski


  1. My comment(s) for these three terms would be basically about how they can be better represented, because they use “image” as a way of manifestation. Such a method “thinking in images” (1) can be revolutionary for our critical lexicon!
    It is important because “image” in some cases provides the reader with a definition that cannot be explained or expressed via words. As human beings we see less than the thing; however the images reproduced via the lenses of camera show more than we expect to see.
    I think the problem emerges when we try to make an assemblage of the images with the words. Here is the case: do we need words? This example in our critical lexicon stimulates such a radical question. There are several ways of assembling images with words. In one case, words just define what images show. –which is redundant, so we don’t need the words or vice versa- In another case, words say completely different things than what images show. –which is a trick that makes the reader challenge, but it sometimes may be alienating in a negative way- On the other hand, in some cases, images are used in order to exemplify what words say. What I try to say is that this example composed by Barbara and Adrian provides us with a highly critical discussion: “the aesthetics of image and word in a critical lexicon” and a question: how can both of them be used effectively and in a harmonious way to construct a critical dialogue between the reader and the lexicon? -Images can provide more interactive relationships; so, in some cases words may be weakening or misleading the power of the images- In this context, the reason behind choosing an image for a definition and the relationship between the definition and the image should be reconsidered and properly “designed”.
    The image of Tahrir Square during protests talks for itself, so I think that we don’t need any further explanation in terms of defining “public space” as an arena of battle between multiple urban agencies. If we analyze the operability of this image in our critical lexicon, it works as an “index” in terms of “semiotic ideologies”. (2) What I mean is the image of Tahrir Square tells us lots of things about the “qualities” of public space and also “affirms” that there is a space like that in reality. However, the image of “twitter” coming right after it works as an “icon”. Webb Keane says that “an icon can tell us something about the qualities of its object but not whether that object actually exists”. (3) This definition supports the controversies on the possibility of a “virtual public space”. Therefore, the image of twitter somehow depotentiates the meaning of “public space”. -or vice versa, but to me, it is problematique-
    The image-word composition works in a completely different manner for the second definition, “commons”. Here, image creates an alienating effect in a positive manner. It is provocative to discuss “common sources” via Mars, while questioning the re-appropriation of “public space” as our commons. I am not sure.
    The first image –of Mumbai- used for the “city” overcomes the limitations offered by its definition via words. This is the image which does not need any words. It tells much more than we recognize. It touches us. It stimulates us; it makes us angry; it burdens us with a responsibility and it ruins all our already defined ways of understanding critique. It forces us to activate instead of just putting critical distances. It makes us reconsider what “solidarity” is. It reminds us the words of Che Guevara: “solidarity means running the same risks.” (4) These words become crucial while looking at the image of Mumbai with its multiple layers of urban poverty, which indexes multi-layered risks to which we might have never been exposed. I think that in order to open up a critical discussion in terms of the definition of “city” within the context of contemporary urban conditions and modes of reproduction, only this image would be enough without any further explanation for it.
    (1) Sigrid Weigel, Body-and Image- Space: Re-reading Walter Benjamin, Routledge, 1996, p.19.
    (2) Webb Keane, “Signs are not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things”, Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller, London, UK: Duke University Press.
    (3) Ibid, p.190.
    (4) Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire. New York: Routledge, 1995, p.3.

  2. It is interesting to see how the form, use and limitation of public space have evolved. Public space would be more or less similar in multiple cities, as central or large place for gathering and interactions among individuals. These places were encouraged to exist to find a common ground where everyone could be. These public spaces are now slowly disappearing or temporary in specific locations. We continue to evolve, causing for a different interpretation of space and its existent that even the virtual space has become prominent and a form of communication. Are we beginning to overlook the importance of public space and its existent as a physical space? I would also comment on the image that demonstrates the shift of the of the word public space to some thing more individual and limiting.

  3. It is interesting to see how the form, use and limitation of public space have evolved. Public space would be more or less similar in multiple cities, as central or large place for gathering and interactions among individuals. These places were encouraged to exist to find a common ground where everyone could be. These public spaces are now slowly disappearing or temporary in specific locations. We continue to evolve, causing for a different interpretation of space and its existent that even the virtual space has become prominent and a form of communication. Are we beginning to overlook the importance of public space and its existent as a physical space? I would also comment on the image for the word public space as a demonstartion of the shift of the word to something individual and limiting.

  4. I found these terms and definitions, along with their associated images, intriguing due to their seemingly public meaning. We all know that cities are political by nature, so naturally politics are behind every move the city makes. However, what is interesting to me is the fact that almost every city makes a point to deem a specified area as “public space.” But what exactly is “public space” if these spaces are owned by private individuals/ groups or governmental associations and are “designed to supervise or restrict social interaction?” Are these truly just private spaces created to seem public in order to assuage the public into believing that they really do have a freedom to occupy space?
    I also thought it was interesting that, in turn, you termed the word “city” as a place in which “non-conforming individuals are excluded from these services and… from the city.” This again goes back to my question of what (if anything) is truly public? Another intriguing factor in your definition of the word city was the fact that you chose two images that, I believe, most people would not immediately think of when they think of what a city is. I agree with your choice of portraying Mumbai as you did in the photo you chose, however I’m not entirely convinced of the trailer park image you chose. Can this truly be seen as cities? Or are they temporary communities that lack infrastructure and stability? Since they do not govern themselves, I would argue that this is not a city, but can be a part of a realized, more permanent city.

  5. This definition of “public space” highlights the centrality of “access” in our conception of what is public. I think this notion of access/accessibility is worth interrogating further – what does it mean for a space to be accessible? accessible to whom? how? for what purpose? under whose control? The example of digital “public space” highlights this nicely, as a platform like Twitter is seemingly “open” to all, yet (as this definition notes) highly moderated. Access here is not only contingent on adhering to the “proper use” of twitter, but also on acquiring the required technologies of access. So can we claim twitter is an accessible public space? Similarly, the anti-sleep benches are “accessible” to all insofar as anyone can “access” them, yet their design also limits their function. They are then publicly accessible, yet not without a degree of imposed limitation on their use. Should we thus consider them a site of limited accessibility?

  6. You address many public spaces within the city but what about the semi-public/private spaces within a city such as those that can only be accessed (legally or socially) by a specific group. These spaces include private lots, key parks, private/government lands. What I am curious about is how are certain spaces deemed public or private and how does regulation or policing of these spaces affect how people will interact with them. And relating to David Harvey, how does one acquire the right to use or access a certain space be it public or private. The term commons is well defined in your post and it leads me to think of what happens to the public space and the city when a tragedy of the commons occurs. Does it create a disruption in the distribution of the resource in the area and does create a shift in power of those in control?

  7. Contd. from above.

    And my last question would are there different factors that effect how we classify public space across cultures, primarily between the west and the east? and what are they?

  8. In regards to the discussion of “public space” and this week’s readings. The “Preface of Squatting in Europe”, by Margit Mayer, there are couple of sentences on the first page that might help define “public space” by describing what “public space” is not. Margit Mayer begins by writing,”Most of these movements used the (re)appropriated spaces to set up tents, kitchens, libraries, and media centers to collectively organize their assemblies and working groups, their rallies and marches, as well as their everyday lives in a horizontal, self-managed, and direct-democratic style. In the process, they have transformed public space into commons – common spaces opened up by the occupiers who inhabit them and share them according to their own rules.” In other words, Margit Mayer is saying that the “commons” is a place that once was a “public space” and – at the time – the goal of the Occupy Movement was to encourage a democratic way of thinking that could leverage the marginalized over the less marginalized. As for “access”, Alena, I think you are highlighting something that David Harvey touches on, somewhere between the first and second chapter of “Rebel Cities-From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution” Where David Harvey writes about the commons as a place that has great accessibility and with greater accessibility comes increased “publics” as well as increased “coercive competition”. Meaning, where there are a lot of people there will be an entrepreneur that takes advantage of so many people being in one place. would there be any room for architecture to insert itself in the conversation with how capitalism and a public commons leverage themselves over each other?

  9. While the previous 4 comments focused on the power of the image, or the inherent imageability of a critical lexicon, which I agree has been deftly co-opted in the name of public interest, I’d like to take a moment to dwell on the particular use of ‘community’ in defining commons.

    Now this word, while obviously loaded with varying meanings for different user groups, stakeholders, constituents and agents, is incredibly difficult to tie down. Community has been donned as the umbrella title to unify disparate people, the banner clutched onto at parades, the logo on the website, or the legal fiction which is entitled to public land if enough signatures and political will is demonstrated. Lets take as an example the queer community. Even in the title, we have a problem. Who does “queer” represent? Does it include the entire LGBT community? Or more inclusively, does it include the LGBTQ community? How about the LGBTQIAA community?

    Lets put the acronyms aside, for these might simply be fussy semantics. Lets try the Jewish Community. Does that include only the orthodox Jews? What about Conservative Jews? And Reform? Reconstructionist? Unaffiliated? Does it have to be Pro-Israel? Does it have to be American?

    More to the point, if I happen to be a queer Jew (which incidentally I am) does the Jewish community speak for me? Does the queer community speak for me? Does only the specific combination of Queer Jews who share my particular cocktail of political, social, religious, and aesthetic affiliations speak for me? I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone actually speaks for me, aside from my publically elected officials, who, for better or worse, legally actually do speak for me. The trouble with community is that it is inherently an embodiment of an oversimplification, and that embodiment of an oversimplification begins to gain political voice in frightening ways.

    In a slight alteration of the definition’s latter half, I would redefine ‘commons’ to be the byproduct of a self-selecting community’s privatization of public land.

  10. The definition of public space seems very loaded and has a lot to do with how in mostly Western culture we might expect to use the place of public space rather than just basically what it is. Henri Lefebvre in “The Production of Space” has a more general idea of public space. He points out that public space is not considered dwelling space any where. This is especially important when one looks at the rise of The Occupy movement in terms of how we are facing a change in the meaning of public space if it can be dwelled in. Lefebvre points out that here there is no distinction of public space between Western and Eastern cultures and while they may have different forms of public space, it is not for living in. He goes on to say, “Private space is distinct from, but always connected with, public space” (166). This is an important thing to note especially for architects. It’s obvious in something like the Nolli map, but it is a concept we take for granted and this in its basic form has no political implications.

  11. As per the readings for this week and the lexicon it seems to have made it quite clear that a public space is being used as a means of political representation. Whether we see this in Tahrir Square, Cairo or elsewhere, this act of the political representation is done freely or not, is questionable especially when we look back at the examples given. Usually the space is taken over (peacefully) in order to inform people of certain claims.
    The use of digital media or digital space has recently become a popular means of showing ones opinion or as Tureli would say, “extensions of man but also of public space”. The use of social media has obviously impacted the way in which a public space is occupied.
    The one question that arises out of this lexicon and the way in which public space/commons/city are identified is; what is the role of the architect? Is the architect now to design a space for this “program”? If a public space is being used as way to voice your political representation but is simultaneously being intercepted by the design of certain objects (anti-sleep benches) how does one use a public space as a way to represent themselves?

  12. This could be a definition of Commons in regards to the occupy movement.
    Commons /ˈkämənz/ pluralnoun

    · 1 Common spaces opened up by the occupiers who inhabit them and share them according to their own rules. · 2 A collective form of residence on the basis of shared resources, but also political action: the space of the commons acts as a monument to the action that takes place.

  13. I found it very interesting in discussing the definition of “public space”. One thing that pops up in my mind immediately is the kind of public space that is privately owned. Although a lot of the privately owned public spaces are open to the public, a lot of them are still managed by private entities, and quite typically property developers. A lot of these privately owned public spaces are not really that open in the end. They created a lot of restrictions that omit the accessibility of part of the public. In face a lot of them are not very nicely managed, for example some of them are gated to make itself not accessible at night. I am just wondering if there is a scale of openness among public spaces, and if private owners still have the right to manage public spaces in a way that is against the public will?

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