Blog #33 – The Five Paradoxes of Public Space, with Proposals

Blog #33  – The Five Paradoxes of Public Space, with Proposals

A key, but not the only, aspect of public space is the role it plays in permitting popular public participation in democratic governance, democratic political decision-making. For the United States, it might be called “First Amendment Space,” after the provision in the U.S.A. Constituting establishing the rights of free speech and free assembly.  In a broader sense, public space should also be available democratically and based on equality of rights  for a full range of social interchanges, for recreation, sports, picnicking, hiking,  running, sitting, chatting, simply enjoyment, by all people, equally. Such uses, carried out democratically, are in turn necessary for democratic governance, but in a different way. Let me call them “Social Spaces.“ And they may be divided between Convening spaces, where convening for the purposes of political effectiveness may be planned, and Encounter Spaces, where chance meetings and discussion may btake place without prior planning/convesning.  “Infrastructural Spaces” are also social spaces but in a different sense, not directly political: spaces for transportation, streets, sidewalks, recreational areas, parks, hiking trails, bicycles partially. he term “Third Space” is sometimes in fashion in a similar sense, and often defined as somewhere between public and private.[1] More on social spaces elsewhere. When public space is referred to here, it is in the sense of political public space,  First Amendment space in the United States. Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Playa of Mothers in Buenos Aires, the Mall in Washington, D.C., Zuccotti Park in New York City, perhaps Central Park or Fifth Avenue, with its parades and marches, but also the fenced in space under the West Side highway at the time of the Republican Convention, and perhaps the indoor space of the Convention Center, as used for convening for discussions of alternate proposals for rebuilding after 9/11.

Five paradoxes, five proposals, one warning.

Paradox 1: The paradox of public space and democracy:To have truly democratic public spaces, you have to have a truly democratic society.But to have a truly democratic society, you have to have democratic public spaces—

The means and the end are inseparable: as we are witnessing today throughout the Near East, a public  space in a society that is not (yet, at least) democratic will not remain open for vibrant democratic discussion long. Only in a democratic society will the state’s use of tear gas be unthinkable.The effective use of public space is almost a sine qua non for the achievement of a democratic society, again as we have recently seen in the Near East.

The connection between political democracy (see economic democracy below) is most obvious in the ways in which the state regulates public space, and the decision-making process by which its regulations are agree upon. The process as it now stands in the United States in a sense ignores confronting the relationship between democracy and public space. The regulation of public space is largely administrative, e.g. Park Department rules, with minimal informed public participation. For instance, I have tried to find he criteria by which he use of Bryant Park is determined by he Park Department, and have just gotten the run-around; the rules are just submit your application, and if it fits we’ll let you know. Even more seriously, the provision of democratic public space is not seen as a formal function of government. The constitution proclaims a right of free assembly for the presentation of grievances;; should it not be understood that that implies an affirmative obligation to make space available for such free assembling?


Proposal 1: Each city should have a public democratic First Amendment spaces plan as part of its regular plan for the city’s development and administration. That plan should include not only the desired extent, locations, and design features of public space in the city, but also the principles for the regulation and management of the uses of all public owned or controlled spaces permitting full exercise of democratic political (first amendment) rights, giving such rights priority.

Much of what is now public space is already owned by and planned for by cities: parks, plazas, sports facilities, waterfronts, streets for parades and street fairs, auditoriums in public schools . There should be a comprehensive plan regulating all such places and uses, taking into consideration a priority for the defined exercise of constitutional rights of assembly, and expanding such places if they are inadequate.

Paradox 2: The paradox of public space and equality

To have truly democratic public space, you cannot have gross inequalities of wealth..But to limit gross inequalities of wealth, you need to have truly democratic public spaces.

It is not a coincidence that when Zuccotti Park was put to a classic First Amendment use, it was done under the banner of Occupy Wall Street, taken as a symbol of grossly unequal wealth. . Inequalities of wealth and democracy are in constant tension with each other.  Our experience in the United States,  as in the last election and recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, is a classic example of that tension.     A gross inequality in wealth results in a gross inequality in political power, which in turn leads to a gross limitation of democracy. In order to address gross inequalities of wealth, you need true democracy, for which in turn (paradox one) you need truly public space in which citizens may assemble for the exercise of their democratic rights.. But in turn, to have truly public space, you need to address gross inequalities of wealth. Not unexpectedly, our billionaire mayor in New York City whose firm is based on reporting on Wall Street’s ups and downs, disagrees.

But even further gross inequalities of wealth lead to gross inequalities in the ownership of land and the buildings built on land. For the greatest restraint on the ability to assemble freely in public spaces is in practice the limited availability of such spaces (and the lack of planning for them, as above discussed). But stepping back, the biggest reason for the limited availability of such spaces is, simply and tautologically, the dominating presence of non-public spaces, that is, private spaces, and their control through a system of property rights in which economic wealth and power largely dictate what uses are in fact permitted and what are not.


Proposal 2: The city should, based on the plan of Proposal 1, have a capital budget that provides for the acquisition, by eminent domain if necessary, of adequate public space to serve democratic political purposes,

Paradox 3: The paradox of public vs. private spaces.

Certain types of private spaces are essential for the functioning of public spaces.

But the privatization of public space also inhibits their public use.

On the one hand, some enhance public use.  On the other hand, the existence of certain kinds of private space is essential for public spaces to best serve their desired functions.

Some commercial uses can serve to enhance the public use and enjoyment of a park, or other public space. The availability of food service is a classic case, and vendors are unobjectionable from almost any point of view. If it enhances other public uses, recreation, education, appreciation of nature, simply enjoyment, fine. Sidewalk cafes an obvious example, and even take into account one First Amerndment right, although not the one we are here concerned with, limited commercial uses can actually facilitate peaceable assembly (fast food vendors at the Mall in Washington).[2]

Some private uses in fact enhance the purposes of First Amendment public space. For most political actions in fact start there. Democratic political action does not ultimately spring from organized political action, but democratic political action rests on a citizenry brought together in social, rather than political or commercial, forums, which are today not a subject of governmental action. [3].

On the other hand, permitting private uses of public space may limit their availability and usefulness. Bryant Park, on 42d street in New York City, behind the New York Public Library and five minutes from Times Square, one of the busiest places in the world, is clearly a public space that lends itself ideally for public events, including First Amendment types. But its use is controlled, by law, by a private corporation, the Bryant Park Corporation. The Corporation  is open about its missions: they include “enhance[ing] the real estate values of its neighbors,”[4] and it is “privately funded and operates Bryant Park with private sector techniques and management methods. “  It is open about its available uses of the space. In applying for a use, the applicant is presented with a questionnaire, which includes the question: “Is the event public or private,?” but no detail is readily available at what private events would be considered. Nor is information given as to the criteria by which conflicting requests for use are judged.

Some purely commercial uses obviously preclude such a public space from performing its function as First Amendment space.; other commercial uses may enhance its effectiveness for political discussions and  even assemblies. But others do not: Fashion shows, shooting movies that involving blocking off and limiting access to the space involved, do not enhance the use and enjoyment of that space.

Putting public space to effective First Amendment thus use requires a calibrated relationship to private spaces and private uses. There pressures to see it as a possible money-maker, enabling ita to become “self-supporting,”  are understandable But iIt would be ironic if the maintenance of public space could only be provided for by its privatization, taking it out of public use.


Proposal 3a: For democratic political uses, the private use of spaces, both publicly owned and privately owned, and their relation to each other should be carefully scrutinized, and made subject to direct local input or more depending on scale,[5] as proposal 1 suggested.

The concept of places of public accommodation is well known in the context of civil rights: there are permissible and impermissible uses of such places, and they are clearly subject to law. Some places of public accommodation: banquet halls, community rooms, lobbies and plazas, are open by law or zoning codes, and can reasonably be used for occasional public discussions, with discrimination prohibited. 60 Wall Street is a recent ideal example.

They might be made subject to open use subject to first amendment requirements, which include the preparation of regulations as now permitted governing reasonable time, description of place, and manner.

Would not a simple provision in the zoning code providing for bonuses for the provision of space specifically designed and managed for use as political public space, geared to the availability of such space in each neighborhood, be a useful possibility? But such possibilities are not even on the table today, not even for discussion. You would need a very self-confident, seasoned, committed democratic governments to do so, because the spaces requested might well be used to criticize the very government that permitted its use. They should be.

Perhaps it might be called a Plan for Communal spaces Perhaps the way in which city owned or leased spaces are used by community boards, in the city’s 59 community districts, could be an example. Or private adaptable communal spaces could be given real estate credit in any building providing them, conditional on their being publicized. Perhaps even temporary communal uses of empty store fronts, as targeted by No Longer Empty, might be models.

Public policy recognizes the problem in many ways: zoning imposes limits (but only hesitantly)  is pro-active in promoting particular uses – bonuses for plazas, theaters, tax exemptions for certain uses, etc.. The proposal for zoning bonuses mentioned above would be a positive addition to that list. Making provision for public political use a requirement goes a step further, and directly limits the power of wealth reflected in private ownership to constrain the exercise of democratic rights of assembly and democratic political participation.

Proposal 3b: Affirmative inducements may be provided publicly for private property owners to permit or even encourage the use of private property for public First Amendment purposes.

Paradox 4: The social and convening and infrastructure uses of public space contradict each other.

The use of public space for social purposes can interfere with its use for convening free assemblies. But social spaces are necessary for the organization of convening assemblies.

You cannot have chairs and tables, such as facilitate social interaction and initial organizing, scattered around a space where a mass assembly of people is to be convened.

Proposal 4: Utilize the advantages of technology and good design to make space adaptable, as in the New York convention center assemblies on the planning of the World Trade Center site after 9/11, or the design of Time Square serving both social and emergency transportation needs., or bullarards and barriers see used both for security and places to eat lunch on.


Paradox 5:  the best use of public space is illegal, and necessarily so.

To get the attention necessary for fully democratic discussion, a disruption of normal routines, of expected occurrences, is optimal. But that means disregarding normal rules and regulations,

And often for purposes critical of the instuitutions imposing such rules.

Unplanned, unpermitted use of public spaces by assemblies increases their visibility and their often desired disruptive capacity. But by the same token they contravene law and official regulations.

The most important democratic political use of public space is for the exercise of the First Amendment right of peaceable assembly for the redress of grievances, grievance addressed specifically to the government that makes the public space available. But any government thus far known to man or woman would feel itself attacked by such assembling, and have a strong interest in restraining it. There is thus an inevitable tension arising from the clear incentive government has to restrict the use of space being used to criticize it. It is no coincidence that police departments use heavy-handed tactics in destroying Occupy encampments wherever they feel they lawfully can.  (toss books in dump trucks, destroy food, take away heaters, make arrests, use billy clubs.

Proposal 5: Accept the fact that it is so, and educate law enforcement and court officials to respect the motives of those breaching regulations on the use of space in how offenders are treated.  Do the exact opposite of what is increasingly the common practice in the handling of such breaches through the criminal justice system.

These five paradoxes can perhaps be seen as instances of a larger vicious circle, an expansion of  Paradox 1: “to achieve a free society, you need free individuals, but you can only have free individuals in a free society.”[6] A vicious circle, but not a deadly one. It simply means that the two are inseparable, and one has to move on the two fronts simultaneously, in parallel. So specifically, in the context of this conference, it means that the effort to create democratic public space must be seen as part of the effort to achieve democracy itself. The two must go hand in hand.

 * * * * *

And so a warning . It is ultimately the importance of democracy that makes achieving democratic public spaces so important, and that undergirds the argument that they be well designed. . The availability of public space for democratic purposes should not be fetishized,[7] and the role of good physical design in its use should not lose sight of the greater purpose to be served: the promotion of democracy.  The design process itself, as well as its results, can be a contribution to that goal. But formal legal and management arrangements are, in the first place, critical. Legalizing Zuccotti Park, for example, or any occupied site, is not a goal in itself; dealing directly with the inequalities of wealth and of undemocratic power, is.

The goal is democracy, not a particular form of public space, although it can be an important means to that end.


[1] The term “third space” or its equivalent has been used in many different ways: spaces between home and work (Oldenberg Oldenburg, Ray (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House and (2000). Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities. New York: Marlowe & Company. Sociologists sometimes use the term to describe neighborhood or community spaces that are not publicly owned nor privately exclusive. For a set of well-done examples, see the special issue of Shelterforce, Hearts of the Neighborhood, National Housing Institute, Montclair, New Jersey, Fall 2012. Edward Soja has used the term in what has been called post-modern fashion in Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1996. Places of public accommodation, in civil rights law, has a similar intermediate meaning. Virtual space is a quite difference meaning of the same “third space” term.

[2] The other First Amendment right, freedom of speech, can come into play here too. Sidewalk displays and sales of art, or perhaps of books, are treated differently from sales of sunglasses or umbrellas in New York City.

[3] The discussion above neglects an important aspect of public space, alluded to in the opening: democratic public space also involved equality of rights in its use for a full range of social interchanges, for recreation, sports, picnicking, hiking,  running, sitting, chatting, simply enjoyment, by all people, equally. For such uses in turn promote the capacity and the desire of citizens to exercise their rights in all spheres, to address together issues of democracy and equality. Their importance adds to the challenges to both the design process and design results

[5] Simpler and even more democratic forms of land ownership may simplify and further democraticiz the use of land. The suggestion of the Planners Network of the United Kingdom goes in that direction:

Sustainable places cannot be achieved without the public and community sector having a long term stake in land and development. We must learn the lessons of New Towns and Garden Cities, and successful community development trusts in the UK, where land is held in common ownership by local authorities or trusts. In these communities, the benefits of land value uplift and the income from developments on community owned land are recycled back into the community to spend on services, better maintenance of property, parks and playgrounds, and on building housing or workshops for local need. In this model, the community is the long term steward of the land, looking after it as an asset for present and future generations  Draft Manifesto on Land Use Planning and Development, Planners Network of the United Kingdom

[6] As formulated in depth by the Frankfurt School and I think most sharply by Herbert Marcuse.

[7] See Blog #5. The Purpose Of The Occupation Movement And The Danger Of Fetishizing Space, at

[Revised version of a paper prepared for the Conference, “Putting Public Space in its Place,” at Harvard University, March, 2013, hosted by Prof. Jerrold Kayden. ]



Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas

Blog #30: Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformative Provocations

The last blog, Blog #29 began with the puzzle that the United States faces deep-seated problems today: problems of poverty, inequality, discrimination, poor education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, unaffordable health care, social aggressiveness and exclusion, insecurities of all sorts, all in a country that claims the values and has the  resources to remedy them.  The answer suggested was that the situation was partly the result of shortfalls of democratic procedures, partly the result of inequalities of wealth and power, but that both of these rest on an ideologically and culturally blocked awareness of fundamental causes and available alternatives – a blocked consciousness that needs to be directly addressed.

That blog  argued that, in dealing with the tea party (as a stand-in for the defenders of the status quo}, it would be most effective to combat those blockages by starting with the problems that are generally acknowledged, pushing some immediate steps towards solutions, but constantly linking those steps to a critique of a frame in which they ought to be embedded, showing how logically the immediate leads to more and more radical and even utopian visions of what in the long run needs to be done.

Some examples, not presented as developed proposals for the formulation of demands or platforms, but as examples of the approach that might be taken, follow. [1]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: reforms that simply make existing programs or policies more efficient, eliminate waste, trim costs, but change neither the thrust of the program not the power relations in which it is enmeshed.

B: Liberal reforms: reforms which expand or modify a program, using market mechanisms wherever possible, and without challenging its structural causes or the power relations in which it is embedded.

C: Radical reforms: reforms which drastically modify programs and expand their aims, challenging the power relations in which they are embedded

D: Transformative Claims: claims, going beyond specific reform proposals which address their structural causes and links to systemic issues, directly challenging the power relations in which they are embedded and serve.

[These examples are suggested only as illustrative, and are thus far really only perfunctorily sketched. For each, there are groups and individuals who have gone much further in working out demands and claims, at all levels, who should be consulted on each issue.  The point here is only to suggest the kind of differences to be found on each, and in each case running along a non-exclusive spectrum from dealing merely with efficiency-only to presenting the need for full-scale transformation. More detail and other examples would be welcome.]:

        Higher education:[2]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Standardized conditions of private loans

B: Liberal reforms: Provide a public option for loans; provide substantially increased public grants

C: Radical reforms: Limit scope of private for-profit institutions.

D: Transformative Claims: Make higher education free.

2.      Mortgage foreclosures[3]:

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Higher reserve requirements of banks; judicial review of sloppy paper work.

B: Liberal reforms: Expand opportunities for voluntary renegotiation of loans; subsidize lowering of interest rates and writ-downs of loans; regulate rents taking into account landlords’ finances.

C: Radical reforms: Require write-down of loan principals; mandate continued occupancy at reasonable rents after foreclosure; facilitate non-profit ownership; regulate rents taking into account occupants’ finances.

D: Transformative Claims: Remove housing from the speculative market through public acquisition or facilitation of conversion to private non-profit, limited equity, cooperative, or community land trust ownership, with adequate subsidies to cover maintenance and utilities at levels affordable to lower-income occupants; confiscatory taxation of speculative profits; aggressive expansion of public housing. Housing should be treated for its use value, not its exchange value.

3.      Public Space:[4]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Administer to protect surrounding property values.

B: Liberal reforms: Provide, expand, and administer to protect surrounding property values and quality of life of neighbors; regulate use by reasonable police measures; give zoning bonuses where privately provided.

C: Radical reforms: Provide, expand, and administer taking into account needs of surrounding community; Protect use against police repression, Require private provision in connection with new construction.  Protect right of use by homeless.

D: Transformative Claims: Provide, expand, and administer adequately to satisfy the needs of the population as a whole; give priority to uses appropriate for the exercise of political democratic rights; mandate public use for these purposes of private property where necessary. Provide supportive permanent housing for homeless users.

4.      Health

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Planned decentralization/consolidation. Computerize records; permit cross-jurisdiction private insurance in a transparent marketplace.

B: Liberal reforms: Finance Medicare and Medicaid properly. Permit unified bargaining with pharmaceutical companies; subsidize insurance, providing a public option.

C: Radical reforms: Medicare for all. Buy out private hospitals and care facilities at asset, not income, values. National Health Service

D: Transformative Claims: Eliminate fee for service provision, comprehensive national health care system, without access restrictions, paid for routinely as a public service, like police and fire protection.

5.      Jobs and Labor Relations

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Full appointments to NLRB; adequate information to workers;

B: Liberal reforms: Adequate inspections and enforcement of FLSA, health and safety standards; facilitation of discrimination cases. card checks for elections; indexing minimum wage levels

C: Radical reforms: Living wage requirements for all jobs; expanded public service jobs; ceilings on management and ownership incomes and benefits

D: Transformative Claims: Requirement of worker participation in decisionmaking in ownership; public provision by public employees of all essential services.

6.      City Planning:[5]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: independent technically qualified City Planning Commission with adequate staff

B: Liberal reforms: Advisory community planning boards

C: Radical reforms:  Community Planning Boards with decision-making powers

D: Transformative Claims: Public ownership of land, city-wide Assembly of Planning Boards with decision-making power over all land use issues.

7. Homelessness

A. Efficiency-only reforms: Screen applicants for shelter eligibility; track applicants; police supervision of shelters;

B. Liberal reforms: Expand shelter system; provide social service consultations.

C. Radical reforms: Provided expanded affordable housing opportunities; staff transitional housing where needed; provide homeless persons input into policy and administration.  Policy;

D. Transformative reforms: Establish and implement a legal Right to Housing for All, including direct public provision and stringent rent controls.

8. Municipal Budgeting

A. Efficiency-only reforms: Putting the capitol budget within the jurisdiction of the City Planning commission.

B. Liberal Reforms: Giving Community Boards or Councilmanic District assemblies a decision-making role in expenditures within their districts.

C. Radical Reforms: Providing a comprehensive city-wide Participatory Budgeting process affecting both operating and capital budgets

D.Transformative Reforms: Expanding a Participatory Budgeting proeess to cover revenues/tax policies locally and adopting national legislation prohibiting tax evasion by cross-border evasion and prohibiting local-level competition in tax programs.

 9. Worker Ownership and Co-operatives

A. Efficiency-Only Reforms. Permit NLRB-supervised elections for union representation

B. Liberal Reforms. Permit Card-check Voting. Aggressively enforce rights to organize and bargain.

C. Radical Reforms. Provide for majority worker ownership, in stock or co-operative form, of individual firms.[6]

D. Transformative Reforms. Strengthen or transfer to democratically controlled public ownership entire sectors of the economy and of production and services provision. [7]

Many other examples could be given, and the above certainly need further development. The point is that, at whatever level of reform is strategically immediately attainable, the principles behind the further levels should always be on the table, including the arguments for the most transformative. They may seem utopian goals here and now, but there is no historical or material reason why any of them are not reachable. Insisting that they be acknowledged even in the midst of the more immediate objectives is at least a small step in the direction of getting there.

Blog #31 will hesitantly suggest some New Rules for New Radicals as possibilities for moving to implementation of such transformative reforms.

[1] My debt to Andre Gorz and the concept of reformist and non-reformist reforms should be clear.

[2] See Andrew Ross’ discussion, described in Dan Schneider, “Occupying Student Debt,” Dollars and Snse, Jan-Feb 2012, p. 6

[3] See further Marcuse, Peter. 2009. “A Critical Approach to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in the United States: Rethinking the Public Sector in Housing.” City & Community, vol. 8, No. 3, September, pp. 351-357.

[4] See my blogs #3, 4, and 5.

[5] Tom Angotti, New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011, provides excellent background.

[6] Gar Alperovitch,

[7] See Alliance for a Just Society.

Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal

Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT

If the purpose of re-imagining the city is to stimulate understanding and appreciation of what the actual possibilities might be for a city of heart’s desire, and to move the uncommitted to join in the struggle to achieve such a city, then perhaps there is a very concrete and visible activity that might provoke action in that direction.

The concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement is specifically to foster action, and the adoption of “Occupy Wall Street” as its name indicates the movements analysis of the road-block to success: Wall Street, as symbolic of the power of financial institutions and the 1% they coordinate over the lives of the 99%. But the name is meant symbolically; at the most, the movement has occupied spaces already largely public, near the financial district but not displacing any financial activity by its presence. At best, demonstrations on Wall Street itself have been limited, short-lived, and tightly controlled by the police. And this is perhaps as far as, today, realistically, the movement can go in actually, literally, “occupying Wall Street.”

But why not spell out what actually “occupying wall street” might look like, as a way of highlighting what the alternatives to it are. Why not use imagination in fact to picture what a street like Wall Street might look like if it were actually occupied by the 99%, if what was done there was replaced by activities better serving the broad public interest? Imagine the buildings of Wall Street as they are now but devoted to advancing the goal of a city of the heart’s desire. What would they be like?

Well, why not have a design competition to answer that question? Suppose the assignment were to imagine the trading floor of the Stock Exchange as the meeting place for the General Assembly of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Imagine if the offices in the Stock Exchange were to be allocated to Occupy Wall Street’s many Working Groups and spin-offs. Imagine the lobby and accessible spaces turned over to Occupy Sandy as a storage and distribution center for food and blankets for the victims of Sandy, and kept as a an available resource for other disasters?1 Imagine the incredible high-speed computers of the stock exchange made available to civic organizations for social networking and information on present campaigns and planned actions. What would Wall Street, and the Stock Exchange building, look like when put to these different uses?

But why limit the re-imagination of existing city spaces only to Wall Street itself? Why not reimagine 1 World Trade Center, the erstwhile “Freedom Tower,” and make it truly representative of our vision of a free and just society by converting it into supportive housing for the homeless, changing it from use by the richest and most powerful members of our society to a symbol of our concern for the least well off and most powerless? Perhaps, if the homeless were all thereafter provided permanent homes elsewhere, Wall Street might serve as a publicly-supported giant hostel or family hotel for visitors to the city who cannot afford the luxury hotels abounding elsewhere in the district – reflecting the concerns we have for the strangers in our midst?

Goldman Sachs has just finished building a $2.4 billion building in Battery Park City, adjacent to the World Trade Center site, as its investment banking headquarters. What is worked on there will undoubtedly have a major impact, not only on the financial sector and the economy as a whole, but also on public policies affecting both the 1% and the 99%. Suppose the building were re-imagined to serve the purposes of participatory decision-making by all segments of the 100%? Suppose rooms and office sites were assigned to community groups, groups advocating for the poor, minorities, the powerless, as well as to business and trade groups, to think tanks for groups across the political and ideological spectrum? Suppose executive dining rooms were to be eliminated, and instead cafeterias were provided for workers from all the different offices – perhaps with tables designed to maximize meeting strangers? Perhaps a health club, similarly designed? Perhaps the Chase Manhattan tower would offer another similar opportunity, if the demand exceeded what the Goldman Sachs building could accommodate – although Goldman Sachs alone is to accommodate 11,000 workers in 43 floors? Universities are constantly struggling for space for expansion. How about a competition for turning the new Bank of America building on 42nd street over to the City University of New York, and inviting other educational institutions from around the five boroughs to share the space?

One could imagine this as a design competition, along the lines of a conventional architectural competition, with a prominent jury, a foundation-donated prize, wide-spread publicity and exhibitions and conferences on the results. If star architects are too involved with clients who might not appreciate the effort, perhaps schools of architecture and planning might be hosts to studios and projects to be entered in the competition, and the as yet unconstrained imagination of students marshaled in its execution?

And, theoretically, it could not only be a competition for physical designers, but perhaps also for economists and sociologists and planners. And not only as to the new uses imagined for the places, but also as to the impact of displacing their present uses. Economists might consider how investment decisions could be made if we didn’t have a stock exchange, political scientists how public decisions could be made absent the power of mighty lobbyists. Sociologists might explore what the resultant mixing of users might suggest and how it might be made most productive.

Such a competition, or competitions, should not be so difficult to organize. And if one is serious about wanting to bring about a better world, one of heart’s desire, why not concretely imagine what it would look like with the physical spaces that we have already built up in our cities?


1. Occupy Sandy might be asked about their space needs. They have put out a request for help:
“Occupy Sandy needs a new multi-purpose space to be used similarly to how Jacobi and 520 have been used for the past month. Please use your networks to help us expand our options. The needs are: roll-in/out capability, meeting and intake space, proximity to transit, accessibility to recovery sites, internet access or potential to install, key access, office and communications hub space, bathrooms, positive community relationships, parking/wide streets, clean, safe and healthy. Please respond immediately with any leads about spaces. Contact is:”


Blog #25 – Re-imagining the City critically

Blog #25 – Re-imagining the City critically

Re-imagining the city can be a provocation to reconsider and expand the range of possibilities for a city in the future. It can simply be an opportunity for an unfettered imagination physically to design something completely new and different, not tethered to the existing city. Or it can open the door to a fundamentally critical view of the existing city, questioning the social and economic and organizational principles that underlie its present constitution and are normally taken for granted. The best of classic utopias do both. What follows focuses only on the latter, on the imagining not of the physical but of the human principles and practices on which an imagined city could be based. It raises some critical questions about some of principles and practices as they implicitly exist today and imagines some alternatives.

If we were not concerned with the existing built environment of cities, but could mold a city from scratch, after our heart’s desire, Robert Park’s formulation that David Harvey is properly fond of quoting, how would such a city look? Or rather: according to what principles would it be organized? For its detailed look, its physical design, should only then be evolved after the principles it is to serve have been agreed upon.

So what, in our heart of hearts, should determine what a city is and does?

I. The World of Work and the World of Freedom

Why not start, first, by taking the question literally. Suppose we had neither physical nor economic constraints, what would we want, in our hearts? Never mind that the supposition posits a utopia; it is a thought experiment that may awaken some questions whose answers might in fact influence what we do today, in the real world, on the way to an imagined other world that we might want to strive to make possible.

It may be hard to imagine such a counter-factual, but there are three approaches, based on what in fact we already know and want today. The first two rest on a single distinction, that between the world of work and the world outside of work, a key implicit division that underlies how we plan and build our cities today, a division that largely parallels that between, as various philosophers have phrased it, the system world and the life world , the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, the world of the economy and the world of private life, roughly the commercial zones and the residential zones. One approach is then to imagine reducing the realm of necessity; the other is to imagine expanding the realm of freedom.
Most of us probably spend close to a majority of our time in the world of work, in the realm of necessity; our free time is the time we have after work is over. Logically, if the city could help reduce what we do in the realm of necessity, our free time would be expanded, our happiness increased.

II. Shrinking the Realm of Necessity

Suppose we re-examined the composition of the world of necessity that we now take for granted.. How much of what is there now is really necessary? Do we need all the advertising billboards, the flashing neon lights, the studios for the advertising agencies, the offices for the merger specialists, for the real estate speculators, for the high-speed traders, the trading floors for the speculators, the commercial spaces devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, the consultants helping to make unproductive activities produce only more wealth, not goods or services that people actually use? If not do not need all of them, do we need all the offices for the government employees regulating them? Do we need all the gas stations, all the automotive repair and servicing facilities, all the through streets to serve all the cars we would not need if we had comprehensive public transit? Do we need all the jails and prisons and criminal courts? Are these parts of the realm of necessity today that are really necessary?

How about the ultra-luxury aspects of the city today? How do we see the multi-story penthouses in Donald Trump’s buildings? The virtually fortified enclaves of the rich in high-rise enclaves in our center cities, the gated communities with their private security in our inner and outer suburbs? The exclusive private clubs, expensive private health facilities, ostentatious lobbies and gateways and grounds where only the very rich can live? Are McMansions and true mansions necessary parts of the realm of necessity? If conspicuous consumption, a la Veblen, or positional goods, are in fact necessary for the well-being of their users, than something is wrong here: such marks of status, such conspicuous consumption, surely is not ultimately as satisfying for its beneficiary as other more socially rich and personally productive and creative objects and activities might. Or are these expensive attributes of wealth part of the real freedom of their possessors? But the realm of freedom is not a realm in which anything goes: it does not encompass the freedom to harm others, to steal, to destroy, to pollute, to waste resources. Imagine a city where there are limits on such things, in the public interest, freely and democratically determined, but in which what is provided for (but all of it) is what is really necessary for a meaningful freedom to be enjoyed.

Conclusion: the realm of necessary work could be shrunk significantly without any significant negative impact on a desirable realm of freedom.

III. Freely Doing the Necessary

A second way the necessary world of work could be reduced would be if some of what is in it that is truly necessary could be freely done, moved into the world of freedom. If in our imagined city what we do in the world of work could be converted into something that would contribute to our happiness, we’d be way ahead of the game. Is that possible – that we would do some of our presently unpleasant work freely, enjoy our work as much as we enjoy what we do outside of work? That we would in fact at the same time reduce the amount of work that is really necessary, and also convert much of the remainder into work that is done freely, in fact part of the realm of freedom? And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible?

But why “unhappy?” Couldn’t some work that is now being done only because it’s paid for, unhappily at least in the sense of not voluntarily done but only done because of the necessity of making a living, also be done by volunteers, under the right conditions And even provide happiness to those doing it?

The Occupy Sandy movement these past few weeks provides some hints.

In Occupy Sandy, volunteers have been going to areas devastated by the hurricane Sandy, distributing food, clothing, helping folk made homeless find shelter, water, child care, whatever is needed. Under the name of Occupy Sandy, many veterans of Occupy Wall Street and other occupations, but they are not doing it to build support for Occupy movement, but out of the simple desire to help fellow human beings in need. It’s part of what being human is all about. It’s been discussed, as part of what sociologists call the “Gift Relationship, ” but not the relationship of giving where you expect something in return, like exchanging gifts with others at Christmas, and it’s not just with people you know, but with strangers. It’s an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked, we want to help each other, we stand in solidarity with each other, we are all parts of one whole; that’s why we bring food and blankets and moral support. The feeling of happiness, of satisfaction, that such acts of solidarity and humanity provide are what a re-imagined city should provide. A city where no one is a stranger is a profoundly happy city.

Imagine a City in which such relationships are not only fostered, but ultimately become the whole basis for the society, replacing the profit motive for personal actions with the motivation of solidarity and friendship, and the sheer pleasure of the work.. Think of all we already do voluntarily today that is really, in the conventional sense, work. Imagine something very concrete, something maybe very unlikely but not so difficult to imagine. Imagine what you would do if you didn’t have to work, but were guaranteed a decent standard of living: all the voluntary organizations we belong do (de Tocqueville noticed that long ago), the collectively way houses were built and roofs raised in the early days of the United States, the clubs, the street parties, the volunteers staffing hospitals and shelters, the Occupiers of all sorts doing what is really social work as part of their freely given support for the movement, the houses built by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. Think of volunteers directing traffic in a blackout, sharing generators when the power goes off, giving food to the hungry. In many religions, carrying for the stranger is among the highest of virtues. And think of artists doing chalk pictures in the sidewalk, actors putting on street performances, musicians playing publicly for pleasure as much as for donations. Think of all the political activity that we engage in without any expectation of return other than a better city or country. Think of all that retired folk do voluntarily that they used to be paid for: teachers tutoring students, literacy volunteers helping immigrants, women who had worked at home and still do also helping in the kitchens of shelters and community clubs, volunteers cleaning trash on trails and roadsides. Think of all the young people helping their elders to master new technologies. Isn’t the city we want to imagine one where these relationships are dominant, and the profit relationship, the mercenary relationships, the quest for profits and ever more goods and money and power, were not what drove the society? Where the happiness of each was the condition for the happiness of all, and the happiness of all was the condition for the happiness of each?

Some things in the realm of necessity are really necessary, but are unpleasant, uncreative, repetitive, dirty – yet get done today because someone gets paid to do them and is dependent on doing them for a living, not because they get any pleasure out of doing them. Part of the work done in the realm of necessity is not really necessary, as argued above. But some is: dirty work, hard work, dangerous work, stultifying work: cleaning streets, digging trenches, hauling cargo, aspects of personal care or treatment of diseases, garbage collection, mail delivery – even parts of otherwise rewarding activities, like grading papers for teachers, cleaning up in hospitals, copying drawings for architects or fussing with computers for writers today. Could any of this be freely done if the conditions were right? Some of this work can undoubtedly be further mechanized or automated, and the level of unskilled work is already steadily being reduced, but it is probably a fantasy that all unpleasant work could be mechanized. Some hard core will remain for some unhappy soul to do.

But as to such pure grudge work, would not the attitude towards doing it be much less resentful, much less unhappy, if it were fairly shared, recognized as needed, efficiently organized? In some social housing estates in Europe, tenants were accustomed to sharing the responsibility for keeping their common areas clean, the landing in their staircases, their entries, their landscaping. They were satisfied that it was properly organized and both the assignment of tasks and the delineation of physical spaces was something worked out collectively (in theory, at least!) and generally accepted as appropriate. Most took pride in this unpaid, unskilled work; it was an act of neighborliness. Once we watched a fast-order cook flip pancakes, tossing them in the air to turn them over, grinning as he served them to an appreciative diner. Craftspeople traditionally took pride in their work; today there are probably as many hobby potters as there are workers in pottery factories. If such facilities were widely available in a city, might not many people even make their own dishes out of clay, while automated factories mass-produced ones out of plastic?

So one route to re-imagine the city from scratch is to imagine a city where as many as possible of the things that are now done for profit, motivated by exchange, competed for for personal gain in money or power or status, or driven by necessity alone, are done out of solidarity, out of love, out of happiness at the happiness of others. And then imagine what are all the things we would change?

To put the challenge of reo-imagining a city most simply, if a city could be fashioned for the purposes of the enjoyment of life, rather than for the purposes of the unwelcome but necessary activities involved in earning a living, what would that city be like? At a minimum, wouldn’t it shift the priorities in the uses of the city from those geared to “business” activities, those pursued purely for profit, in “business” districts, to those activities done for pleasure and their innate satisfaction, in districts designed around the enhancement of residential and community activities?

IV. Expanding the Realm of Freedom

As an alternative way of re-imagining, a city could also be re-imagined based on the day to day experience with what already exists in the realm of freedom in the city as we have it now. And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible? Making available other facilities necessary to sustain the realm of freedom in the re-imagined city? Community meeting places, smaller schools, community dining facilities, hobby workshops, nature retreats, public playgrounds and sport facilities, venues for professional and amateur theaters and concerts, health clinics – the things really necessary in a realm of freedom?

We might give the possibilities shape by examining how we actually use the city today, when we in fact are not concerned with making a living but rather with enjoying being alive, doing those things that really satisfy us and give us a feeling of accomplishment? What would we do? How would we spend our time? Where would we go? In what kind of place would we want to be?

One could divide what we do into two parts: what we do privately, when we are alone or just with our intimately loved ones, and what we do socially, with others, beyond our core and intimate inner circle. The city we would imagine would make sure each has the first, the space and the means for the private, and that the second, the space and the means for the social, are collectively provided. For the first, the private, what the city must provide is protection for space and activities that are personal. The second, the social, this is what cities are really for, and should be their main function. Cities, after all, are essentially defined as places of wide and dense social interaction.

So if we look at what we already do, when we are really free to choose, what is that we would do? Probably very much some of the same things we do now, when we are free – and, possibly, if one is lucky,, they might be some things one is also getting paid to do now. Some of us love to teach; if we didn’t have to earn a living, I think we’d like to teach anyway. We might not want to have a 9:00 a.m. class, or to do it all day or every day; but some we’d do for the love of doing it. Many of us cook at least a meal a day, without getting paid for it; would we maybe cook for a whole bunch of guests in a restaurant if we could do it on our own terms, didn’t need the money, and weren’t getting paid? Would we travel? We would take others along if we had room? Entertain guest, strangers, from time to time, out of friendliness and curiosity, without getting paid, if we didn’t need the money? Would we go to more meetings, or be more selective in the meetings we go to. Would we go for walks more often, enjoy the outdoors, see plays, act in plays, build things, design things, clothes or furniture or buildings, sing, dance, jump, run, if we didn’t have to work for a living? If none of the people we met were strangers, but some were very different from us, would we greet more people, make more friends, expand your understanding of others?

Imagine all that, and then imagine what we would need to change in the city we already know to make all that possible.

What would that imagined city look like? Would it have more parks, more trees, more sidewalks? More schools, no jails; more places where privacy is protected, and more where you could meet strangers? More community rooms, more art workshops, more rehearsal and concert halls? More buildings built for effective use and aesthetic pleasure rather than for profit or status? Fewer resources used on advertising, on luxury goods, on conspicuous consumption?

What would it take to get such a city? Of course, the first thing is unfortunately very simple; we’d need the guaranteed standard of living, we’d need to be free of the need to do anything we didn’t like to do just to earn a living. But that’s not so impossible; there’s a whole literature on what automation could do, on what waste there is in our economies (23% of the Federal budget goes to the military; suppose that money didn’t get paid for killing people but for helping them)? And wouldn’t we be willing to share the unpleasant work that remains if it were the means to live in a city that was there to make us happy?

All that takes many changes, and not only changes in cities. But the thought experiment of imagining the possibilities might provide an incentive for actually putting the needed changes in effect

V. From the Real City to the Re-Imagined City: Transformative Moves

Beyond thought experiments, provocative as they may be , what steps can be imagined that might pragmatically move us towards the re-imagined city of heart’s desire? One approach might be to start by seeking out existing aspects of the city activities that either already offend our hearts and moving to reduce them or that already give us joy and moving to expand them.

If then we were to reimagine the city pragmatically but critically, starting with what’s already there, the trick would be to focus on those programs and proposals that are transformative, that would deal with the root causes of problems and satisfactions, that would be most likely to lead from the present towards what the city re-imagined from scratch might be. In other words, to formulate transformative demands, one that go to the roots of problems, what Andre Gorz called non-reformist reforms.

it is fairly easy to agree on much that is wrong in our cities, and to go from there to agreement on what might be done in response. Then putting those pieces together, a re-imagined image of the city, perhaps not as shining as one re-imagined from scratch but more immediately realistic and well worth pursuing, could emerges.

Look individually at what those pieces might be (there are of course more, but the following are examples of key ones).

Inequality. We know high and rising levels of inequality are at the root of multiple tensions and insecurities in the city, and that a decent standard of living in the city depends on its residents having a decent income. Strong living wage laws, and progressive tax systems, are moves in that direction. The transformative demands here would be for a guaranteed minimum annual income for all, based on need rather than performance.

Housing. Decent housing for all, eliminating homelessness, over-crowding, unaffordable rents, would be key ingredients in any properly re-imagined city. Housing vouchers, various forms of subsidies, even tax incentives, zoning bonuses for mixed-rental construction, are all moves towards ameliorating the problem. For homes threatened with foreclosure, reducing principal or interest and extending payments is helpful short-term, but likewise does not deal with the underlying problem. Transformative, however, would be the expansion of public housing, run with full participation of tenants and at a level of quality removing any stigma from it residents. Community land trusts and limited-equity housing likewise points the way to replacing the speculative and profit-motivated component of housing occupancy from it use value, stressing the community ingredient in housing arrangements. That does address the roots of the problem of unaffordable quality housing.

Pollution and congestion. Automobile fumes congestion, inaccessibility except by care for needed services can all be serious problems, and regulating emission levels on cars and congestion pricing are useful means to ameliorate the problem. Transformative are measures such as closing streets (the Times Square experiment vastly expanded), and lining it with much improved pubic mass transit, encouraging adaptation of heavy usage areas to bicycle access, mixing uses, all go further to attacking the roots of the problem, to suggesting transformation towards re-imagined cities.

Planning. The lack of control over one’s environment, the difficulties of participating actively in the decisions about the future of the city in which one lives, is a major issue if the quest is for happiness and satisfaction in the re-imagined city. Public hearings, the ready availability of information, transparency in the decision-making process, empowered Community Boards. But until Community Boards are given some real power, rather than being merely advisory, alienated planning will continue. Real decentralization would be transformative. The experiment in Participatory Budgeting now under way in New York City and elsewhere is a real contribution to potentially transformative policies.

Public Space. After the experience of the evictions from Zuccotti Park, the need for public space available for democratic actions has become manifest. Adjusting the rules and regulations governing municipal parks, permitting more space, public and public/private, to be available for such activities, are steps in the right direction. Protecting the right of the homeless to sleep on park benches is a minimalist, although basic, demand, obviously not a demand aimed at ending homelessness. Expanding the provision of public space and giving priority for its uses for democratic activities can be transformative, and would be a component of any re-imagined city. (See my Blog #8).

Education. Adequately funded public education, with the flexibility of charter schools but without their diminution of the role of public control, would be a major step forward; for students presently in higher education forgiveness of student loans is a pressing demand. But the transformative demand would be for totally free higher education, available to all, with the supportive conditions that would permitall students to benefit from it.

Civil Rights. Organization is a key factor in moving towards an imagined transformed city, and the city of the present should facilitate democratic organization. Other issues mentioned above: public space, education, housing and incomes making real participation feasible, are all supportive of an expanded conception of civil rights. So, clearly, is the end of many practices restricting organization, from police limitations on assemblies and speech to so-called “homeland security” measures to simple use of the streets for public assemblies, leafleting, etc. Transformative here would be oversight measures seriously limiting the unfortunately inevitable tendency of government officials and leaders to try to control critical activities within their jurisdictions, critical activities sure to be found short of the achievement of the re-imagined city, and perhaps even there.

Put the goals of all such transformative demands together, and you have transformed a purely imagined city into a developing and changing mosaic based on the existing, having its roots in the present reality, but slowly flesh on the bones of what imagination will generate.


A warning: Re-imagining the city can be fun, it can be inspirational, it can show doubters that another world is possible. But there is a danger:

Re-imagining the City should not be seen as a current design project, laying out what the physical city could look like if we had our way, what utopia would look like. What the city needs is not redesign, but reorganization, a change in who it serves, not how it serves those who now are served by it. It needs a different role for its built environment, with changes adapted to the new role, not vice versa. A re-designed city is a means to an end. The end is the welfare, the happiness,, the deep satisfaction, of those whom the city should serve: all of us. We should not spend much time physically designing what those reimagined cities would look like except as a provocation to thought, for which however they are useful – and which is the intent of this piece. The actual designs should be done only when there is actually the power to implement them, by the people who would then use it. Designs should be developed through democratic and transparent and informed processes.


For an immediately practical proposal to make the re-imagination of the city a politically useful next step, see Blog #26.

  1. But a caution here, for what the heart desires can in reality be manipulated. Herbert Marcuse deals with this issue in making the distinction between authentic and manipulated desires, authentic and manufactured needs. See Collected Writings, ed. Douglas Kellner, vol. VI.
2. Similar to Jurgen Habermas’ formulation.
3, Hegel, Marx, Herbert Marcuse
4. How to define what is “really necessary” is of course a tricky proposition. For one fruitful approach, see Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
5. Richard Titmus, The Gift Relation, 1970.
6. Maimonides, St. Francis.
7. Are parts of the struggle for competitive or simple existence, not done for the satisfaction of productive work well done that they provide., Herbert Marcuse has it in Essay on Liberation.
8. Marx’s fantasy, in the Grundrisse, commented on in Herbert Marcuse vol. VI, Collected Papeers, Douglas Kellner, ed., Routledge.forthcoming,
9. For the present situation, focusing on white collar work, see Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Adam (October 2011) Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Digital Frontier Press. ISBN 0-984-72511-3.

Frivolous Appendix

Isaiah 40:4 is used in the text of Handel’s Messiah, in a passage in which the prophet tells the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord by making a highway for him through the desert, and then:

“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

Reading this as a political metaphor for the social and economic constitution of an imagined city, it is eloquent. It might be read as a metaphor in the debate on income tax rates under way as I write this, as well as for the appropriate goals of the criminal system and the need for transparency in public actions.

But read as a design for an imagined physical city, it would be the opposite of good planning. Environmentalists would shrink from it in horror, architects would rend their garments, criminal justice reformers might see it as a call for more jails, historic preservationists see it as threatening the legacy of the traditional quarters of old cities. Isaiah is not around to defend himself, but surely his meanings were closer to the political/social than the physical.

Beware of presenting social issues in physical metaphors, lest they be taken literally!