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Elizabeth Blackmar on Public Space

Source: Te Aria Nui Charitable Trust

“The scholars’ contest over whether ‘the commons’ would be understood as a historical set of social relations, as a metaphor for a primitive past that spawned an enlightened future, or simply as a scenario for decision making was overtaken in the 1960s with the rise of a new trope, which continues to circulate to this day. In a 1968 article in Science magazine, the biologist and environmentalist Garrett Hardin illustrated his argument on behalf of regulating population growth by describing a ‘tragedy of the commons.’ ...

“A loosely defined ‘property rights movement’ ran variations on the theme of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as it fashioned solutions that ranged from ‘free market environmentalism’ to World Bank-sponsored ecological management. At the same time, although efforts to privatize state services and property received their greatest boost from the hard facts of fiscal crisis, that movement also scored points off the trope of commons in ways that helped usher in the public-private partnership as a model for governance of public property and hence public space. ...

“Some have suggested that the fantasy of limitless private wealth has distorted the vision and values of propertied Americans, turning self-interest into a crabbed and literal-minded miserliness. Cold War anticonmmunism, the economic trauma of deindustrialization, and the political disruptions and gains of social movements in the 1950s and 1960s left economic elites fearful rather than confident in the assimilative powers of public institutions. And, as was true among environmental activists, leftists as well as libertarians thought that public officials could not be counted on to protect or advance the common good. Some scholars suggest that with abundance, Americans outgrew their collective need — even their capacity — for a public realm. Others argue that the public itself was felt to have become too large, too inclusive, its rewards too widely disseminated in too many forms — too democratic. Whatever the cause, the demise of the idea of a democratic public domain in the United States is a loss that extends beyond its borders.

“It is not possible, of course, to construct a global public; at a global scale, the ideas of democratic access and accountability associated with public space stretch beyond recognition, for people do not live their lives as members of abstract communities or spaces. Of necessity, common property regimes around the world are represented as sharply bounded, local, and delimited, usually with reference to particular kinds of resources, such as fish, land, and forest. The discourse of property rights has created ways of imagining that those independent systems of allocating property rights and sharing resources might continue at the sufferance of international proprietors — the NGOs who are taking figurative ownership of the globe’s ‘future’ and who in their capacity as guardians have set about evaluating the efficacy and efficiency of any given system to determine which should be left in place and which should be reformed. Local practices can create their own space for unexpected contingencies, new openings that can redirect strategic calculation on a larger scale, of course. But without larger institutions of government, there are not many ways most ordinary people with limited means can collectively deliberate over what they wish to control or leave for their descendants by way of shared resources, institutions or public spaces.

“Historically, public space was created as public property, and if that institution has run its course, if there is no language or theory that affirms that people can build and maintain governments that can build and maintain public space, we should all pay attention, for we have observed one more tragedy in our own time.”

— Elizabeth Blackmar in “Appropriating ‘the Commons’: The Tragedy of Property Rights Discourse,” 2006

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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