Margaret Kohn, PhD in Political Science from Cornell University, is Associate Professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science. Her interests are the history of political thought, critical theory, colonialism, and urbanism. She is the author of Radical Space: Building the House of the People and Brave New Neighborhoods. Her new book Political Theories of Decolonization (with Keally McBride) was recently published by Oxford University Press.
Kohn discusses the impact of the proliferation of restrictions and privatization of public space in the United States. She says that while some say we need more civility (read, no homeless) in our public spaces, she advocates for diverse, heterogeneous actions, even civil unrest. Simply, the loss of public space is bad for democratic politics.
The three themes of the book each relate to the intersection of space, speech and democracy. (1) Privatization and political activity, i.e., for whatever reason, we’ve come to prefer private spaces, such as malls. What has this meant for our right to demonstrate, even hand out leaflets? (2) Segregation and public space, i.e., the more privatized our spaces, the more segregated our society. Segregation leads to moral and political problems alike: it is wrong to reinforce the privileged group’s position and it is a political problem when they cannot see injustice. (3) Public, private, public-private, and a clarification of their meanings. Per Weintraub (1995), “public” is tricky. Kohn proposes a “cluster concept” definition of public space, subsuming three components: it is owned by the government, accessible to and by all, and encourages interaction. Legal distinctions matter, of course, because access has implications for what encounters/messages are possible. A space operates like a language, either permitting, inviting, or closing off communication, exclusion or inclusion.
The book covers a wide range of issues within the public space topic. Following are quick descriptions of each chapter.
- Chapter 2: Kohn discusses public space as a historical site of conflict. She uses the Wobblies’ fight for street-speaking as a case example and introduces the agonistic model of democracy.
- Chapter 3: Kohn condemns the property rights concept; “the role of the public sphere today is to show that our truths are not universal” (59).
- Chapter 4: the mall and downtown business improvement district aren’t so different. They share these socio-political consequences: power is proportional to investors/value of the property, local businesses become even more powerful and have greater sway over local government, and as 501(c)3’s, BIDs evade a lot of constitutional mandates protecting civil liberties (read, homeless rights). Despite their private status, local government and taxpayers pay for many/most BID services (including removing the homeless).
- Chapter 5: The paradox of the “liberal rationale” for “intentional communities” and “perfectionist zones.” Micropolitics shouldn’t get special dispensation from civil liberty requirements. Kohn also levels a critique at Rawls’ Political Liberalism (1993), written 25 years after and in defense of A Theory of Justice (1971), states rational citizens can revise and be rational. However, political liberalism still can’t apply to religious or moral perspectives, so while it’s good for getting people to legitimize their actions, it suffers a severe limitation in that it doesn’t explain moral differences or motivation.
- Chapter 6: “Brave new neighborhoods” refer to residential community associations (RCAs) and the differentiated power structures between owners and renters. RCAs realize Tocqueville’s democratic despotism nightmare because they allow “imaginary communities” in contradistinction to Benedict Anderson’s (1983) “imagined communities,” which have “comradeship through (invented) shared histories and symbols rather than face-to-face interactions” (125). Here also Kohn critiques the New Urbanists because their work still doesn’t address the greater economic inequities that exist. If anything, their designs play to them.
- Chapter 7: Kohn examines Battery Park City’s devolution of objective and increase in segregation through the development process. Here the government had a particular role in abandoning values of equity and integration in favor of profit and efficiency.
- Chapter 8: Here Kohn considers the varying arguments about the homeless. Jeremy Waldron (1991) doesn’t adequately dismiss Robert Ellickson’s (1996) famous zoning proposal in “Controlling Chronic Misconduct in City Spaces” because, per Kohn, saying criminalizing homelessness is criminalizing true freedom still doesn’t address zoning. Nor does the romantic view of homelessness compel social intervention since it makes it a lifestyle choice. The democratic theoretical critique is the best because while it neither assures help nor sympathy, it does provide the homeless with visibility.
- Chapter 9: Kohn concludes, arguing “for the provision of public goods in general and public space in particular” (18). In the end, this book confronts our constitutional support of free speech with our desire to avoid social discomfort, and insists that public space fosters democracy by giving space/a stage to “political speech and dissent” (189). There are three ways to think about public goods: (1) economic, see the tragedy of the commons; (2) normative, though redistributive justice doesn’t get at motivation; and (3) democratic, which promotes, as in the Progressive Era, political and normative health.
- Chapter 10: This chapter’s an afterword noting that public space politics and in fact inform the “architecture and regulation of cyberspace” (218). Likening the Internet to public roads, Kohn says it has three layers: content, codes, and the physical. The web’s content is “mixed,” the code is “in transition,” and the physical, “controlled” (218).