Security and the urban public sphere.

Author:Siebel, Walter


Stories of decline have always been told about the city: In the 19th century about the deterioration of morality and order in the modern city, in the 20th century about the destruction of urbanity through functionalist urban development, and today about the loss of public space. This article defends the thesis that, although shifts are taking place in the public and private spheres, it cannot be concluded without further ado that this constitutive polarity of the European city is suffering deterioration. The thesis will be examined by taking the example of new surveillance systems in cities. It is argued that such systems are quite unable to eliminate the fundamental insecurity and ambivalence associated with public space. Fears resulting from social and economic insecurity are projected into public space, which can lead to excessive controls, which can indeed impair the publicness of urban spaces.

Public Space in the European City

"A city is a settlement in which the whole of ... life has a tendency to polarise, i.e., to take place either in the social aggregate state of the public sphere or in privacy ... The stronger the polarity and interaction between the public and private spheres is, the more urban is ... the life of a settlement" (Bahrdt 1998: 83 f.). The polarity between publicness and privacy can be specified in four dimensions (Siebel 2000):

legal: public space is governed by public law, private space is under the private authority of the proprietor--and the power to define who may use premises and for what purpose differs accordingly;

functional: the public space of squares and streets is devoted to market and political functions, the private spaces of business and home to production and reproduction;

social: "frontstage" (Goffman 1973) public space is the locale of stylized, reserved behaviour, and that of anonymity. Private space, in contrast, is "backstage" (ibid.), a place of intimacy, emotionality, and "domesticated vital functions" (Gleichmann 1976);

material/symbolic: a broad repertoire of architectural and urban development elements signal the accessibility or exclusivity of spaces. Design, materials, and symbols heighten and spell out the legal, functional, and social differentiation of public and private spaces (Wagner 1999).

With the polarity between publicness and privacy, Bahrdt has developed an ideal-typical concept to characterize the special nature of the European city. But it is more than a heuristic tool for sociological analysis. It is normatively highly charged--at least as far as the functional and social dimensions are concerned. The private sphere is associated with the ideal of the middleclass family with all its promise of life-long intimacy and love, while the public sphere is associated with the ideal of civic publicness, and thus with implemented democracy and societal integration without the exclusion of difference. "We call events public if they are ... accessible to all," writes Habermas (1990: 54) and the same is meant by "public places" (ibid.).

There is always a more or less wide gap between ideal and reality. The stories told about the decline of the city are therefore fundamentally questionable, for they explicitly or implicitly assume that this gap did not exist in a better past or that it was then much easier to bridge. Stories of decline almost always contain elements of truth, but they are very selective, for the gains that went along with the losses and the dark sides behind the facade of a transfigured past usually remain unmentioned.

Public space has never met its normative ideal any more than the private milieu of home and family has always been a refuge of unadulterated peace and harmony. Sexualised violence against women takes places largely in the private sphere, and the perpetrators are usually friends and relatives (Becker 2000). And nowhere are there more murders than among friends and relations. Nor has public space as space always accessible to everyone ever existed in any city. It is always exclusive, as well. Throughout history, cities have differed in whom they choose to deny access to urban spaces, which spaces are off bounds, and how access is denied. Today the homeless, drug addicts, and groups of foreign-looking, male juveniles are affected. In the 19th century it were women and the industrial proletariat. A woman who moved in public space independently and not under the supervision of a male companion ran the risk of being regarded as a fille publique, a whore (Wagner 1999: 66). Engels (1970: 70 f.) described Manchester as a city in which one could live for years "without ever ... coming into contact with workers," ... a "hypocritical" way of building ... "sufficient to hide from the eyes of the rich ladies and gentlemen with strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and dirt that are the complement to their wealth and luxury."

There is good reason to doubt that the gap between the ideal and the reality of public space in the European city is now any wider than in the 19th century. But the quality of the gap has changed. The relationship between publicness and privacy in the city changes continuously, and this change affects all four dimensions, functional, legal, social, and material/symbolic. Somewhat less publicness in one dimension may contrast with more in another--and the same is true for the other pole, privacy.

With reference to Norbert Elias, Peter Gleichmann (1976) has described the process of civilisation as a process of enclosing corporeality. Since the beginning of the last century, the founding function of the European city, the market function, has been enclosed. It began with shopping arcades and department stores and continues today with the big shopping malls and urban entertainment centres. The number of shopping centres alone in German inner cities and greenfield locations increased from 179 in 1995 to 269 in 2000 (EHI 2000). These modern commercial operating forms can be described as an attempt to enclose the city itself. Everything the potential customer could wish for in the way of goods and services is offered under one roof. These forms of business make themselves independent of an urban environment, the precondition for locating exclusively in terms of the availability of land and accessibility by car.

But there is also a countermovement. With the withdrawal of big industry and the military in the aftermath of deindustrialisation and disarmament, the "forbidden zones" of large industrial and military facilities, previously inaccessible to anyone who did not work there, became open to the public. As derelict industrial sites and former military areas have been transformed into parks, residential neighbourhoods, and office areas, private spaces are becoming public to an extent that can, in sum, compensate the trend towards privatisation of the city. However, this raises the question of the social significance of the spaces that have been privatised or given over to public use. For while barracks or industrial sites never incorporated the functions of public space, the new private public spaces of shopping malls and urban entertainment centres claim precisely to re-stage the public space of cities. These new types of enclosed space are important for the public sphere precisely because they are increasingly popular. Owing to their mass use and the fact that they become social meeting places and are not restricted to a market function, they take on a new quality. Exclusion from factory premises is likely to have disturbed few people. Exclusion from an urban entertainment centre which has become the focus of leisure activity could impair primary social relations--including those outside working life. If private shopping centres attract more people than public market places they also become the places where the politically weak, medially non-dominant groups have to be present if they are to be heard. In the United States, courts have handed down strongly diverging rulings on the issue of free speech in shopping malls (Friedelbaum 1999). In Germany there has so far been no appreciation of the emerging problem.

The privatisation of the city is paralleled by the societalization of private household functions. Almost all the functions of physical and mental reproduction that have traditionally been performed in the private household can now be handled through recourse to goods and services offered through market or state channels. The infrastructure and merchandise needed to satisfy even the most intimate of bodily and mental promptings are available. The modern city machine with its superabundance of goods, services, and infrastructures can be seen as the complete societalization of the private household. Theoretically, it permits singles to survive without households of their own. However, societalization does not appear to have diminished the importance of a person's own home as a place of repose and withdrawal. The "inner region" of the private sphere (Habermas 1990), which in its present form developed only during industrialisation with the spatial separation of workplace from home, is tending to become even more important. The overall proportion of singleperson households (individualised private sphere) is growing, as well as the per capita consumption of living space.

The shift of functions between public and private spaces is accompanied by shifts in legal boundaries. They, too, run in both directions. Derelict sites in the Ruhr District have been transferred to indirect public ownership through the North Rhine-Westphalia Property Fund. Today many of these sites are publicly owned, for example as industrial monuments or public parks. The legal privatisation of the city is illustrated not only by enclosed spaces but in particularly spectacular manner by Celebration City, a town constructed by the Disney Group in Florida for a population of 20,000. As in other so-called common interest...

To continue reading