114: Margaret Kohn’s Brave New Neighborhoods

Margaret Kohn’s Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space argues that “public life is undermined by the growing phenomenon of private government” via the privatization of physical public spaces.  As central business districts, parks, and other public gathering places are increasingly replaced with privately-owned shopping malls, gated communities, and Business Improvement Districts, true free speech and face-to-face political debate are foreclosed by bans on political speech or certain viewpoints (or even certain groups of people) on private property.  As opposed to online forums, public space allows for debate in real time, among real, embodied people; it fosters the kind of informed opinions needed to keep a democracy running, so the loss of public space also has profound implications for the functioning of American politics.

Kohn bases her arguments in the historical uses of public space, legal cases regard the public/private status of malls, gated communities, and other privatized public spaces, and theories connecting physical spaces with political process.  She argues that


while privatization is often a response to people’s desire not to be harassed by picketers, public speakers, and political canvassers every time they leave their houses, it also forecloses debate and leads to uninformed opinions.  Privatization can occur as a corollary to suburbanization, as when a developer builds a mall to tap unmet consumer demand; by commodification, as when a city like Toronto sells its CBD to a developer in exchange for urban revitalization; or even through a desire for control, as when a city refuses to grant a permit for a protest. This privatization is harmful because it reinforces existing patterns of segregation: rich from poor, business people from street people, consumption from politics.  And this segregation/ homogenization is bad partly because it keeps people from having to confront growing social inequalities and partly because it prevents people from developing a shared language.

Kohn supports her argument with a wide range of legal cases testing different aspects of the privatization of public space, including Unitarians attempting to leaflet at Mormon ecclesiastical plaza in Salt Lake City, political canvassers being refused entry at the Galaxy Towers condos in New Jersey; the exclusion of the homeless from a revitalized Battery Park in New York, and a controversial proposal to ban panhandling and bench squatting in 95% of downtown areas that is modeled on old Skid Rows.  In her afterword, Kohn cautions against utopian claims that cyberspace facilitates new forms of community and debate; after all, most of these spaces are just as privatized as physical spaces are.

While I’m personally sold on the importance of physical public space, I might add to her argument the importance of a) embodied debate and b) good modelling for informed debate.  As important as it is for people to hear other viewpoints, our lives are already saturated with messages that we tune out, so I can’t imagine that simply allowing more messages IN, even if they are political, would do much for democracy.  Equally important factors for democracy are listening and critical thinking skills; if people don’t have these, all the public space in the world won’t do anything to foster thoughtful debate.

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