Seeing ourselves and others as “public”

Carl Douglas
Nov 21, 2019 · 6 min read

By Carl Douglas

Every summer, The Oval transforms a parking lot in downtown Philadelphia into a space for people. Image credit: Albert Yee.

Good public space is meaningful and enabling. It helps us make sense of our relationships, and supports our self-determination. It should be a platform on which we can all build, something like the old concept of the commons. Public space is filled with people pursuing various goals, individually and collectively, according to various value systems and ways of living. To imagine new kinds of public space is to imagine new ways to enable people.

Yet the question remains: what is public space, and to what extent is it something we can design or engineer? Before we can get any kind of handle on this question, we need to first consider what we even mean by public.

Public cannot be the leftovers

Memphis’ River Garden. Image credit: Erin Mosher.

Publics is plural, not singular

To begin with, there isn’t one single public, so it makes sense to talk about “publics” or “a public” rather than the public. Often principles of membership apply, explicitly or implicitly, in the formation of a public: citizenship, residency, participation, civility, self-identification, even ethnicity or gender. It’s healthy for us to shift from speaking of ‘the public’ to publics, plural, because it prompts us to consider what actually connects the people in question as well as what principles of membership might be at work.

Making ourselves visible

Publics see themselves. This is easiest to imagine in the case of crowd at a sporting event or performance, or assembled in protest. This kind of public, writes social theorist Michael Warner, is “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space… has a sense of totality, bounded by the event or the shared physical space.” In one of these situations I see not only the event or performance. I also see myself as part of something. My membership of the public consisting of all the people inhabiting my country, is pretty abstract. I can imagine it, and participate in it, but I can’t really see it. As a member of a crowd, however, I concretely experience and know myself as part of some shared presence and action.

Akron’s Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail near Summit Lake. Image credit: Tim Fitzwater.

I’m not a habitual protester, but I recently joined one of the ongoing Climate Strike protests, one of thousands who met at a particular time and place in order to identify ourselves as a group with a shared purpose. The point of the gathering was to be visible, particularly to those with the power to make necessary legislative changes, and to others who might be prompted to action. But the gathering also made us visible to ourselves. As I walked, I saw people revelling in their presence in the crowd. Phones were out everywhere I looked, as people made and shared images that situated them as part of something. Being in public is a reflexive experience. We don’t just pop in and out of public space, we understand ourselves through it.

Public space is political

The dedication of Tamir Rice’s gazebo at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. Image credit: David C. Sampson.

It’s no wonder that philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to the public realm as political “world-building.” To build a shared world involves not only the design of systems for representation, deliberation, and governance. It also includes the ways we put together our physical context. Arendt wrote, “human existence is conditioned existence. it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.” We aren’t free-floating and self-contained individuals who just happen to come into relationship with various other people and things. To think this is to fall back into the idea of public space as the leftovers from private worlds. Political theorist Bonnie Honig extends Arendt’s idea, arguing that, “democracy is rooted in common love for, antipathy to, and contestation of public things. Without public things, action in concert is undone and the signs and symbols of democratic life are devitalized…Without such public things, democracy is reduced to procedures, polling, and policing, all necessary perhaps, but certainly not sufficient conditions of democratic life.”

Market on the Ave in a formerly vacant lot in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit. Image credit: Bree Gant.

Sharing space takes work

“The relish with which Monderman explains the shared space model suggests he knows he is not just talking about traffic but is rather — or also — developing a vernacular for citizenship that emphasizes egalitarianism and mutuality. Clearly, Monderman hopes that the result will be a diminution of self-absorption, less focus on security, and the emergence of something like care, concern, collaboration, and play in shared space settings.”

Brave Monk class at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative in Chicago. Image credit: David C. Sampson.

Truly seeing one another

Akron’s Summit Lake. Image credit: Tim Fitzwater.

Carl Douglas is a lecturer in Spatial Design at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. His research into design and public space circulates around two main themes: unprofessional space-making (informal, ad-hoc, illicit, and amateur spaces); and procedural design techniques (cartography, design computation, abstraction, drawing, and intuition).


Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

Carl Douglas

Written by

AUT University School of Art and Design / Design agency, public space, and procedural techniques.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

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