Street life: our future depends on our ability to share and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.

A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters
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Last week, after another mass demonstration against spending cuts brought the Spanish capital to a standstill, the mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella, reached the end of her tether. She petitioned the national government solicitor general’s office for the right to ban future protests from the streets and squares of the city centre. “The Spanish capital cannot tolerate for everyone’s public space to be systematically occupied by those who have made Madrid the target of their protests,” she explained, calling for political gatherings to be banned from “historical-artistic settings, areas with significant tourism presence and strategic transportation routes”. In other words: all the places that people are most likely to protest – the symbolic square, the famous arterial road, the bustling transport hub; the high-profile spots where political demands, for better or worse, will be seen and heard. Botella’s request was turned down flatly – apart from anything else, she was told, it would be almost impossible to enforce.

In a sense, the argument in Madrid could have taken place anywhere: as urbanisation intensifies across the globe, the negotiation and sharing of public space in the modern city is ever more hotly contested. The figures are so staggering they are liable to bring on a kind of Malthusian fever: according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), by the middle of this century, the world’s urban population will almost double, increasing from approximately 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050. It’s a vertigo-inducing upwards trend that has already begun, of course: between 1995 and 2005, the urban population of developing countries grew by an average of 1.2 million people per week, or around 165,000 people every day.

Why is the WHO in particular interested in these numbers? Because already, it reports, 828 million city dwellers live in slum conditions, and almost all of the growth predicted in the coming decades is likely to be in developing countries. The slums are going to grow at an astonishing rate, and with this growth, the politics of urban living and the sharing and policing of public space becomes the critical issue of our age.

Since 2011, one of the most pressing questions facing urbanists and politicians alike has concerned protest. While theorists obsess over “clicktivism” and Twitter revolutions, the striking thing about the global unrest of the last few years – from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish indignados, Turkey or Venezuela – has been how grounded in physical space it has been. Activists and protesters have gathered in iconic central squares, set up camps, held meetings and heard speeches, and transformed those places into not just the location of a demand for political change, but a kind of embodiment of it. The connection of the place to the political movement is so strong that shortened place names such as Syntagma, Gezi, Tahrir, Maidan and Zucotti are synonymous with their recent upheavals, and thanks to understandably excitable round-the-clock media coverage, now instantly recognisable to people who have never visited them.

Yasser Elsheshtawy, an associate professor at UAE University and the author of books such as Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle and Planning Middle Eastern Cities, has spent his career studying the way people behave in the urban environment, not least in his native Egypt. The sheer spectacle of Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests in 2011 helped Egypt’s revolutionary sentiment self-perpetuate, and as Elsheshtawy explains, the square has figured very highly in the Egyptian psyche in recent decades: “Since the military takeover or revolution in 1952, Tahrir has always been a site of demonstrations and speeches, so it carries a lot of historical weight. In terms of practical design, it’s abutting downtown, it meets the Nile, it can be accessed from many different roads, its sheer size lends itself to spectacle. Even the way the buildings around the perimeter form a wall helps the crowds feel and look more intense – it’s almost like a stage, in fact.”

The symbolic resonance of Tahrir Square as a political meeting point is so powerful now, that Egypt’s current crisis, with the government’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, has seen a nervous government take it out of the equation altogether. “You can see how significant Tahrir Square is,” says Elsheshtawy, “that it is essentially being blocked off by the current government, because they know if anybody did want to take over, or even just make a statement, they would go straight there. The authorities make a big effort – for a while, every Friday you would have security, tanks and so on, and people would be prevented from entering there. In a sense you can go anywhere except Tahrir.”

Viewed in this way, it is almost as if the iconic public space is itself a weapon in the hands of the dispossessed – and thus to maintain their power, the government must confiscate this weapon. It is the same thing that Ana Botella sought to do in Madrid last week – she didn’t call for the prohibition of protests uniformly across the city, but rather, very specifically: most obviously from Puerta del Sol, the square where thousands of indignados camped in the summer of 2011, Spain’s equivalent of Tahrir. It is a space in the heart of the city where there will be someone protesting about something, almost every day of the week.

In Manama in Bahrain, the government went one step farther than the Egyptian or Spanish authorities. Protests in 2011 focused on the Pearl Roundabout, named after the Pearl Monument at its centre, with an encampment there much like in Tahrir, Puerta del Sol or Gezi Park: when the park was cleared of protesters, the government removed any possibility of a repeat performance and destroyed not just the central monument, but the entire roundabout.

“It’s an interesting case,” says Elsheshtawy, “because it was really nothing more than a roundabout, but it became the centre of protests – and when they subsided, that roundabout was just eliminated, completely removed. They turned it into an intersection – and it was because it was so symbolic, because it had that potential to turn into a place where people just go. Even though the Pearl Roundabout was in a fairly new, and therefore not very dense, part of the city, it was still a major part of urban infrastructure.” Conversely, he says, older parts of cities can’t be removed altogether – you can’t just get rid of Tahrir Square. But there are other things that can be done to “design out” protest. “There are mechanisms by which governments can use landscape, or traffic and so on, to create a physical reality that would prevent any concentration of people within a confined space.

“There are a couple of places in Cairo, in fact, which used to be gathering points for Islamists – where just by landscaping and installing street furniture, you break things up, so instead of having a huge space, you have broken up, disjointed little spaces – and the crowd will be more manageable.” He cites the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, and the area in front of the Abdeen Palace in downtown Cairo, large, open pieces of public space, where the outdoor prayers at the end of Ramadan would normally see an opportunity for Islamists to get together – and this brought on another political intervention into urban planning. “So at Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, they created this huge landscaped roundabout with a fountain right in the middle of that space, and they diverted traffic around it, so even though people go and pray there, it’s not as massive as it used to be. I’m sure there will be efforts going on somewhere to redesign Tahrir Square in such a way that it prevents things like that happening there in the future.”

The possibility of “designing out” protest, of using town planning as a political tool, is not a new one at all. The most obvious example is Baron Haussman’s transformative renovations of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. Things that now seem essential to the French capital’s landscape, in particular the broad, endless boulevards, were designed, in Walter Benjamin’s memorable words, for “the securing of the city against civil war”. The thought was that in order to prevent further revolutionary uprisings, incredibly wide boulevards would undermine one of the Parisian working class’s main strategic weapons, the barricade – it would simply be too difficult and time-consuming to construct them. Furthermore, the boulevards were designed to facilitate the easiest of routes from the military barracks to the poorer districts.

In a short, polemical new book entitled The New Urban Question, the Cambridge academic Andy Merrifield argues that the changes being imposed on the modern city by global capitalism are tantamount to “neo-Haussmanisation”, “a global-urban strategy that has peripheralised millions of people everywhere … cities have exploded into mega-cities, and urban centres – even in the poorest countries – have gotten de-centred, glitzy and internationalised. Nowadays, the poor global South exists in north-east Paris, or in Queens and Tower Hamlets. And the rich global North lives high above the streets of Mumbai, and flies home in helicopters to its penthouses in Jardins and Morumbi, São Paulo.”

This chimes with the argument David Harvey has made in his book Rebel Cities – that the city is not only going to be the terrain of social and political tensions in the 21st century, but also its landscape, its buildings, infrastructure and even its street furniture might contain the clues as to how those tensions will be played out.

For all the spectacular symbolism of squares such as Syntagma, Gezi and Tahrir, it is perhaps the less well-known public spaces in our cities – “the poor global South”, as Merrifield puts it – from which we have the most to learn. If the growing number of poor urban dwellers are being pushed farther and farther to the periphery, figuratively and geographically, then all their daily lives, sociality and indeed their political grievances, will be played out farther from the city centres and historic sites of power. To understand all our urban futures perhaps we need to look towards the banlieues, rather than the Arc de Triomphe – the out-of-the-way areas where immigrants and poorer citizens cluster together.

For a recent project entitled Mapping Dubai, Elsheshtawy and a team of researchers sought to document the behaviour of people in public space beyond the glamour of the city centre, using heat maps as well as photography, film and note-taking. They trained a time-lapse camera on a street corner outside a Pakistani restaurant in the Hor al Anz district of Dubai. The results are fascinating, with the businesslike atmosphere of the daytime giving way to a hive-like buzz of social activity in the evenings, with people chatting, interacting, watching TV through the restaurant window together and above all using the pavement as a destination, rather than merely a conduit.

“I’m particularly interested in places that are not obvious or official, that are sort of hidden,” he explains. The Hor al Anz district was ideal for this, an area populated by lower-income, often immigrant labourers from Pakistan. It’s certainly a departure from the general perception of Dubai as orientated around private spaces, whether it be the car, or even, in a more open and sociable context, a shopping mall – the kind of space that feels like it might be public but is private property with all the concomitant conditions and rules about behaviour. Elsheshtawy says it is a more common occurrence than people might think.

“The Hor al Anz street corner is not that unusual for Dubai actually. You find these kind of outdoor interactions within neighbourhoods where the residents are lower in the economic scale. You see that quite a lot in many of the poorer areas of the city. You will not see it in places that are more upscale, gated communities where activities tend to be more indoor, or within more specialised settings, like clubs and parks. That public social life is not completely unexpected, it’s just you have to look for it, because sometimes it’s not evident or visible. You find that whenever you have migrants, people want to carve out a space within the larger city.”

As the world’s cities balloon in size, the marking of a smaller space you feel is yours, that you feel comfortable in, may tend towards this kind of “village-isation”. The use of public space to gather sociably is common to migrant groups, as Elsheshtawy says: an attempt to create something that feels like home in a new country. This can often bring out the best in city life for everyone.

My experience of living in London has brought some of its greatest joys in this way: for example, the day last autumn I walked my usual route to the local train station, Finsbury Park, and became intrigued by the faint hum of north African music, and horns honking, in the distance. By the time I reached Blackstock Road, an unremarkable London street except for its concentration of Algerian cafes, I discovered an impromptu carnival taking place celebrating Algeria’s qualification for the World Cup. There was singing, dancing, flag-waving and food being passed out, a car blaring out Algerian pop music, and indeed the police diverted traffic around it for a bit, since not just the pavement but the road was already jammed with revellers.

I’ve stumbled on similarly joyous and unexpected street parties, also inspired by football victories but with more emotional heft than that implies, in parts of London with significant Turkish and Portuguese populations too. The striking thing about each of these celebrations was that they never felt characterised by even a hint of national chauvinism, meanness or territorialism; and in the way passersby of all races and nationalities reacted, laughing and taking photos, there seemed to be an understanding that the party was to be enjoyed by everyone. And why shouldn’t it be? It was taking place on the streets that are shared by all, not in a private home or social club.

Recent celebrations of the Hindu festival Holi and the Jewish festival Purim in the streets, squares and parks of London further emphasised the notion that it is the multiculturalism brought by globalisation that carries the greatest potential to save the modern city from itself – to restore the positive outbursts of public life that are threatened by the privatisation of urban existence; to remind us why living together might benefit us all.

Using the pavement as shared space is a tool migrant communities use to chip away at the alienation of being far from the land of their birth. But if more and more of us are threatened with alienation from the cities we call our homes, these sociable behaviours, reclaiming scraps of public space wherever we can find them, suddenly seems like a political act in itself. In this sense, public space does not need to be politicised, because it is intrinsically politicised. Tahrir Square, and the way Egyptians traversed it, was significant to the social and political life of Cairo even before the 2011 protests began there.

With an estimated 3 billion new city dwellers by 2050, there is the risk of dramatic new levels of urban poverty and social exclusion, and consequently, more dissatisfaction and mass protests, with or without conveniently designed public squares, parks or roundabouts to do it in. The challenge for politicians, town planners, architects, drivers, pedestrians – indeed, for all citizens – is to find ways to use our outdoor public space not as a battleground, but a playground. The fact that neither the heat of a Dubai summer nor the cold and rain of a London winter can stop people doing so is some considerable cause for optimism.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His latest book is The Village Against the World (Verso).