Don Mitchell, distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University and recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, spoke to USC students and faculty on the creation and significance of public space, specifically its role in relation to the homeless, minorities and protesters.
In his talk, “People’s Park Again: The Ongoing History of the End of Public Space,” Mitchell examined changes in public space. The professor argued that since there is not a concrete definition of public space, the majority of the intellectual community tends to define public space in terms of what it is not.
“An image or a shared understanding of … what public space is … is mostly assumed,” Mitchell said. “The image [of public space] appears to be one of … relatively open access [and] little capital control over the full functioning of the space; light policing.”
While Mitchell says there is much debate over which modern spaces, such as malls or campuses, constitute public space, he turns to urban theorist Mike Davis’ definition of public space.
“Public space is the space where changes in the city [are] fought out.”
Such conflicts are evidenced by demonstrations of urban unrest in public spaces.
“Public space is a space of conflict and is essential to the creation and resolution of conflict,” Mitchell said.
He turned to the examples of the necessity of public space in civil rights protests and gay pride parades.
“Public space is a space for organizing and protesting … [and is] essential for political people,” Mitchell said.
Minority groups as political actors in public spaces further emphasize this point and bring forward new questions about what exactly public space is.
“The increased presence of women, of gays, of minorities in public space … raised, in new ways, the question of who public space is for,” Mitchell said. “[Their] insistence on being present and visible in public space forced dominant society to confront its exclusions.”
Mitchell explains the similar function of homelessness in cities in relation to public space.
“The crisis of homelessness, which many interpreted to be a crisis of public space … [forces] the question of public space; what it was for, who belonged in it and who didn’t,” Mitchell said.
In fact, the professor claimed that homelessness is central to understanding the conflicts of public space, and it was actually what led him to researching this field originally.
“As a college student at San Diego State, I was so pissed off at the world around me,” Mitchell said. “Seeing the homeless just lying there on the streets … so unjust … I have an anger and passion about the issue that never left.”
It was his work on homelessness that led him to examine public space and its relationship to homelessness in communities.
Mitchell explained that states approach the issue of the homeless in public spaces as a matter of health, sanitation and safety.
“Homeless people’s use and occupation of public space is seen as necessarily detrimental to order,” Mitchell said. “Homeless people either directly ruined or lead to the ruin of public space, in this argument.”
As a result, new laws regulating quality of life emerged.
“Quality of life laws developed to govern homeless people’s use of public space, or perhaps to remove them altogether.”
Mitchell warns that this could become the worst-case scenario of what could happen with new public space regulations.
“The worst thing that could happen … [would be] the clearing out of homeless people who have nowhere else to go.”
Mitchell says that individuals can take action in or outside of activist groups.
“[It is important to] find ways to work in solidarity with people who have no other place to be but in public.”
He also argues that while housing is often regarded as the solution to homelessness, it is not enough.
“Being outside in public spaces is valuable to the homeless, as it is to us.”
Mitchell also encourages individuals to find opportunities to transform spaces, such as malls or chain restaurants, into public spaces.
Mitchell points to a growing conflict in Queens, N.Y. between McDonald’s and the elderly Korean immigrant population who buy a cup of coffee and then sit at McDonald’s for the day, which turns the fast-food eatery into a “public space.”
“Personally, the thing that I do is try to learn and explain … to understand and to research,” Mitchell said.