Is Public Space a Public Good?
“Most of what is called public space in cities is in fact private or municipal space. We all know what happens to private space when its owners decide to exert control, and with politics more and more subject to commercial influence, municipal space cannot be counted upon to remain free and accessible.” —Mark Kingwell, philosophy professor, University of Toronto
Mark Kingwell’s vision of the city is a site of justice where every occupant has an irreducible claim on all the possibilities it has to offer. This “right to the city” concept was originally developed by French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre to describe a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It holds that a true public good is both non-rivalrous, one person’s use of it will not impede on another’s, and non-excludable, no one can be prevented from using it.
While most public spaces are non-excludable, they are in fact rivalrous due to market dominance and the evisceration of both shared interests and public trust in city building. Kingwell, speaking as part of the Simon Fraser University City Program’s public lecture series, conjectured that public spaces can only become a true public good when the creation of private spaces requires public justification. This shift would require empathy to become the moral value of public life, which would create a shared sense of connection alongside the democratic process. Cities reflect how just societal arrangements are, and Kingwell believes that they would be more just if public space truly become a public good.
Can public space be considered a public good?
[Top Image: Staggered log placement on Vancouver public beaches by Cornelia Oberlander, a renowned Vancouver-based landscape architect. During her career she has contributed to the designs of many high-profile works of public space, including the Robson Square and Law Courts Complex, the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Public Library, and Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building in Yellowknife.]