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Just cities: the role of public space and everyday life

Much has been written about the importance of mobile phones and social networking in recent protesting around the globe, including the Arab Spring demonstrations, yet along with effective means of communication, occupying urban space was equally necessary and significant, says Dr. Wendy Pullan, Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research.


Recent years have seen private citizens flocking to their city centres in order to protest against abuses and violence, to call for more or better forms of justice and democracy, to make their rights and wishes apparent. Tahrir Square, Gezi Park, Place de Republique have become synonymous with public demonstrations in Cairo, Istanbul and Paris. Much has been written about the importance of mobile phones and social networking in forming these events, yet along with effective means of communication, occupying urban space was equally necessary and significant. Without dwelling upon the success or failure of such movements, ‘being in the place’ was a way of establishing civic participation.

To better understand the wider background of such events, I would like to make two observations: first of all, conflicts across the world are becoming increasingly pervasive and complex. In the words of the International Crisis Group’s Jean-Marie Guéhenno, they are more ‘fragmented’. Rarely are today’s conflicts declared wars with clear beginnings and ends; increasingly, they take the form of prolonged strife with intermittent periods of violence and of relative peace. Many are deeply embedded in ethno-national and religious hostilities as well as economic inequality and class tensions.

Secondly, such conflicts are increasingly played out in urban settings; a 2011 World Bank Report notes that ‘in many cases, the scale of urban violence can eclipse that of open warfare’. Today, cities have become the arena for conflict. The conflicts may originate in national or transnational disputes, but they are played out in cities like Belfast, Baghdad and Jerusalem. Such cities may be targeted as in the siege of Sarajevo during the Yugoslavian civil war or the state-sponsored barrel bombs attacking Syrian cities. But conflicts may also be generated from within by hostile sectors of the population. Whether generated by outside or inside forces, or both, these conflicts increasingly represent cracks in the continuity of urban society.

In considering ethno-national and religious conflicts, we find a high level of longevity and uncertainty that is proving resistant to traditional peace processes and political negotiations. Solutions are elusive and we may simply have to learn how to live with certain levels of conflict. Such a realisation affects the place of justice and the role of legal solutions. The dispensing of justice only through policy and official channels may be insufficient, biased or ineffective. One reason for this is because conflicts in cities often concern everyday institutions and practices, played out in ordinary urban life. Examples of everyday life affected by conflict are varied and pervasive: no-go streets in the city; neighbourhood domination by local strong men; regular and sometimes violent demonstrations and parades; streetscapes of graffiti, slogans and other ethnic identifiers; or, more subtle practices that dictate where one chooses to live, work or shop. In the divided cities of the Middle East, urban quarters are increasingly associated with particular ethnic or religious groups; in parts of Belfast, Republicans and Nationalists can be identified by the side of the street on which they walk. Often personal choice is absent; exclusion is pre-determined by religio-political identity and security.

The ancient idea of nomos, understood as law and legal order, also has a second and related meaning of convention or custom. Justice, or lack of it, can be played out through customary practice in daily activities. It has to do with how we manage our daily interactions and the urban scenarios that determine where human exchange exists and where not. This is usually a delicate balance. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has noted that ‘more communication means above all more conflict’. Understanding each other needs to be supplemented by tactics, actually a ‘code of discretion’, of ‘getting out of each other’s way’. If it were one defined code, legislation would be useful. However, throughout everyday life in urban situations, many codes of behaviour play a role and skills and discretion are necessary to navigate throughout such a complex territory. Protocols shift and respond to a myriad of different powerful forces. Whilst this may be fine when there is good will, it is easy to see how such a delicate series of balances and reactions break down in times of trouble or conflict. Explicit legislation will have an effect at only a very superficial level, but most transactions are rooted in fundamental yet complex forms of praxis, effectively, as architect Peter Carl puts it, ‘in what people do’.

Much of this has to do with human activity and the interaction between people, or their ability to ignore each other. But it is worth noting that the environment also plays a major role in forming a place for these events. In other words, praxis must be located, and customs develop in physical contexts. In cities, public space, as the physical space that diverse peoples share in some way, provides critical environments.

Cities have been built on the fault lines of culture – places of trade and exchange, the coming together of religious individuals and groups, sites to make proclamations, utter judgements, build major structures – and these are inherently the places of diversity and difference. A city is only a city when it encompasses diversity, yet, returning to Sloterdijk’s statement, this, on a grand scale, is a recipe for conflict. Thus urban public space is inherently diverse, often conflictual and sometimes contested. Many of our most important urban institutions are based upon adversarial relations – parliaments, judicial courts, debating chambers. Debate and disagreement have also traditionally taken place in other less formal bodies: markets, cafes, theatres, demonstrations and protests. In all of these, no absolute agreement is normally expected. Rather they act as a means of moving forward, with difference and even conflict, as part of the culture, becoming embedded in everyday life. These institutions are physically situated in cities and, effectively, adversarial relations become integral parts of the urban topography.

However, when heavy conflict arises, we see changes in cities, particularly in public space. People tend to shrink back into their own neighbourhoods and communities where they do not have to contend with the ‘other’. If violence develops, mixed populations become afraid of each other, and everyday life, with all of its ordinary customs and protocols, becomes truncated. Above all, public space becomes a casualty. Public places and facilities – like markets and malls, bus stops and train stations, busy streets and squares – may become magnets for violence and thus closed down and hidden away from public use. In some ways this is not surprising: if violence emerges with threats to safety and human life, you get rid of the places where this is happening. Yet, I should like to suggest, that whilst this might be effective in the short term, in the medium to long term, public space and the renewal of everyday activities that take place there is key to viable urban relations and the life of a diverse city. We need our urban public space.

There are a number of problems with closing down public space and severe disruptions of customary life and practice. Restrictive measures in an emergency often linger on to focus on certain racial or ethnic groups. So-called temporary measures, like building inner city walls and barricades – prominent features in Jerusalem, Nicosia, Baghdad – have the nasty habit of becoming permanent. In the long term, in very seriously divided cities like Mostar, Beirut or Jerusalem, the possibility of seeing a face that doesn’t look like yours, or hearing a language that is local to the place but you do not understand, becomes increasingly rare and, I would argue, increasingly precious.

In examining the effects of conflict in public places, the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research has found two seemingly contradictory phenomena. In periods of intense violence people from different ethnicities avoid each other but when times are more peaceful, at least some of the populations gravitate back toward mixed areas. At the same time, entrenched conflicts result in long term or permanent urban changes, often embedded in the physical divisions. So in Nicosia, divided by an uninhabited buffer zone running through the city centre since 1974, it is difficult and may be impossible to rejuvenate this formerly public and shared part of the city. People’s customary practices have been disrupted by what I would call ‘conflict infrastructures’, most visibly in walls and imposed barriers. A tipping point is passed and what has been relatively easy to fracture is almost impossible to knit back together. Along with such public spaces the customary practices of urban life and the civic rights associated with them also disappear. Thus we see that cities are both robust and delicate at the same time. If we wish to address the problem of conflict in cities, we must recognise and play to the strengths of both these qualities. Getting rid of public space, even in times of violence, is clearly not the answer.

Wendy Pullan is Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research. Dr. Pullan has published widely on European and Middle Eastern architecture and cities, examining the processes of urban change, both historical and contemporary. She has advised on issues to do with urban uncertainty and Middle Eastern conflicts, especially Jerusalem, including reports and briefing papers for Chatham House, the UN and various NGOs. Her recent publications include: Locating Urban Conflicts (co-edited, 2013), The Struggle for Jerusalem’s Holy Places (co-authored, 2013) and Architecture and Pilgrimage 1000-1500: Southern Europe and Beyond (co-edited, 2013). She is a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Further

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