What is public space?

Trafalgar Square

(Photo credit: Trafalgar Square, London, courtesy Satish J, Flickr Creative Commons)

Last week I got into what the term “public culture” means. Today I’m turning my attention to “public space.”

One of the things a blog such as this has to pin down is what exactly is a public space. Monuments and memorials are usually designed to exist in some sort of public space (though that’s not always the case) so we need to be clear just what it is that defines the term and the concept. It’s important that we do this.

The easiest way to tackle this term is to think about how it applies to real places. In physical or geographical terms a public space is any type of space that is open to the public and generally accessible to everyone. So right away that mostly excludes privately owned land, buildings, etc. (though not completely—see below). Public land and public spaces are usually owned by some sort of communal or municipal body that operates on behalf of the people. The main purpose of these public spaces is to allow ordinary people to gather, meet, debate, discuss, celebrate, hang out or do any other social practice that is acceptable to social and legal norms, in a space that is separate from their private spaces. Importantly, access to and use of these public spaces is normally free of charge. The idea is that any of us can use these public spaces and we’re supposed to be given quite a bit of latitude as to how we use them.

Such public spaces might typically include public squares, public parks, playgrounds, roads and sidewalks. It might include beaches (though some states allow beaches to be privately owned). Public buildings such as state capitols, town halls, public libraries, and police stations can also be included in this definition. Again, these spaces are owned or maintained by some sort of public authority that operates in the name of the public, whose senior officials are usually voted into office by that same public.

Note that “public” in this sense doesn’t mean that the use of these areas is unrestricted. Government may place restrictions on use of public spaces as long as these are “fair and reasonable” and held to be such by the courts. For example, public spaces don’t have to be open all hours. Parks and public buildings are typically closed for certain hours of the day, in the interests of public safety. For security reasons, public schools limit access to people who are not directly involved in the school’s education mission. Public spaces are governed by numerous laws and ordinances regarding their use. That’s why you can’t, say, litter in a public space, or expose yourself. You can be cited or arrested for such behavior. As long as there are no attempts to discriminate against particular groups in an illegal manner, it’s all good. Public spaces can even restrict your free speech rights, as long as such restrictions are done in a fair and responsible manner, and don’t attempt to discriminate against one or more particular groups, they will usually stand up to legal challenge in the courts. The point is that if a municipal body wishes to restrict people’s behavior in a public space, they can only do so by means of legal sanction.

One issue that increasingly crops up these days is that certain types of private space have become so commonly and habitually used by the public that they are considered by many to be de facto public spaces. The best example of this is the modern shopping mall. Whereas previous generations of Americans did most of their shopping in stores along the public high street, people today are more likely to shop in large, indoor malls. These malls, however, are usually private rather than public spaces—including the walkways between stores and common “gathering spaces” such as food courts and open seating areas. They have been built on land owned entirely by whichever private corporation owns the mall. The owners have great leeway in deciding what behavior they will or won’t tolerate in their private space. People sometimes forget that, and act as if they have the same rights and freedoms as they would have in a genuine public space. In most states, they don’t. Owners of such private spaces have the right to eject you from their property at any time and for pretty much any reason. They don’t have to pass an ordinance to do this, though nor can they fine you or otherwise sanction you. But they can kick you out. (Of course, if you are assaulted or harmed during that ejection you can seek redress through the courts, but that’s another matter.) Our presence in such spaces is completely at the discretion of their owners.

Well, not completely. There is an exception to this private mall state of affairs. Courts in California and New Jersey allow for some expression of free speech in malls, as have—to a lesser extent—Massachusetts, Washington, and Colorado.

As you can see from the example above, the distinction between public and private spaces might be a bit fuzzier than it seemed at first. The shopping mall example highlights our increasing tendency to think about such private spaces in the same way we used to think about public spaces. At the same time, physical or financial barriers are increasingly being raised in public spaces that are operated in the name of the broader community. State and national parks are today often forced to charge admission fees for access. Public spaces are more and more often being appropriated for commercial development, reducing their effectiveness as sites for organic community interaction. How is this blurring of distinctions between public and private going to impact us?

This brings me to my main question: How does all this relate to monuments and memorials? Certainly some memorials are private in nature, built on private property and intended for a private audience where the property’s owner can decide who can and can’t gain access. However, for the most part I’m interested in talking about public memorials, and these are usually located in some type of public space. To my mind, public memorials are far more important to all of us than private ones.

Here’s the thing: We might forget this from time to time, but public spaces are hugely important to our towns and cities, and ourselves. Public spaces provide the essential common connective elements that tie a community together. While private spaces—homes, stores, etc.—are important places for us to exist and interact as individuals, public spaces are vital to give us a communal or shared social experience that helps us define ourselves as a community. If they are open and pleasant and vibrant places to be in, we all feel better. Ultimately, our identity—whether it’s at the level of city, region, state, or nation—is defined by our public spaces. If we lose our public spaces, or mess them up, we’re ultimately messing ourselves up. We can’t really call ourselves a community or a nation without access to meaningful public spaces. They’re that important. The memorials and monuments we place in these public spaces are a big part of what define these public spaces and that also define us as a community.

One issue I’ll need to return to is whether, and to what extent, the term public space can be extended to the realm of the media. This will get us into the realm of what scholars call the “public sphere.” I’ll save that for another time.


Postiglione, M. (2013). Looking at public spaces in contemporary Rome: an anthropological perspective on the study of cities. Academicus, 7, 117-127.

Van Melik, R., & Lawton, P. (2011). The Role of Public Space in Urban Renewal Strategies in Rotterdam and Dublin. Planning Practice & Research, 26, 5, 513-530.

Marc Price Wolf (2011). Free Speech at the Shopping Mall. California Lawyer. Available at http://www.callawyer.com/Clstory.cfm?eid=914899


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