Is Public Space a Public Good?

Is public space a public good? According to Mark Kingswell, an award-winning professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, the answer to this question is “No”. As discussed in his lecture on February 20, 2013 at SFU Vancouver, public space is a key place where intellect and imagination has to be exercised but we are lagging behind in our imaginative solutions to the problems that cities post.

For Kingswell, the city is a site of justice but people often think of cities in other ways. So, it’s important to shift questions of legitimacy and social justice in the actual built environments that we live in as most people want their city to be a good and just city.

To achieve this, public space as a public good should create opportunities for conversations and interactions that create justice. Here, density and proximity are key to address justice issues as it becomes harder in a denser city not to interact with other people. Moreover, public spaces provide positive externalities such as the aesthetics of looking at people on the street, the excitement of having other people around you or simply a great urban experience.

Nevertheless, different cultural identities and communication styles as well as clustering among people like ourselves can lead to polarization which often makes these conversations and interactions difficult. Moreover, possible negative externalities mean that you also have to deal with things that you didn’t contract for like air or noise pollution, advertising or traffic in public spaces.

To come back to the original question, public goods are nonrival (one’s use doesn’t affect another one’s use, building on the “right to the city” argument) and nonexcludable (open to all, meaning that there are no “invisible gates”). So, for Kingswell, public spaces are at best commons goods but not public goods, mainly due to rivalry. In this regard, he points to access challenges, regulatory capture and collective action problems (the more we use the commons for our personal interest, the more we might be ruining them for everyone’s use, including ourselves).

Another main problem is that the market dominates far too much of our lives, our cities and our public spaces. In fact, most of what is called public space is actually private space that masks as public space. Therefore, we as citiziens have to demask it. But a culture of entitlement, positional goods and wealth inequality lead to the evisceration of shared interests and public trust.

This is where empathy as the moral value of public life steps in because the governing value of public life is the sense of connection. In the face of public justification of private space, empathy is the reminder that there is no individual unless they’re recognized by others, that there’s no me without you.

Ultimately, democracy is an infinite process of justification where we have to constantly ask ourselves questions such as “Why is this place where I can be and not where someone else can be?” or “Why is this a good that I can enjoy and not someone else?”.

So, public spaces in cities are the place to look first to sense whether our cities are even approaching justice.


Note: This blogpost is part of a series of blogposts on interesting events from 2013 that I haven’t blogged about yet. As they’re dealing with rather timeless issues, I am finally sharing these insights at the turn of the year where both I as a blogger and you as a reader hopefully have the time to enjoy them.

Posted on January 2, 2014 in Urbanism

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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