Civic Urbanism: Public Space, Social Capital and the Reconstruction of an Urban Commons Book Project

Researcher and author:

Prof. David Brain
Prof. David Brain
New College of Florida

Project Description:

The focus of this book is an analysis of the significance of the revival of urban public space as a critical component of an array of efforts aimed at moving toward a resilient, equitable and livable urbanism in the face of the daunting social, political, economic and ecological challenges of the 21st century. The concept of a civic urbanism is proposed as a parallel to what has been called “civic environmentalism” (John 1994; Shutkin 2000), with its focus on collaborative problem solving and innovative approaches to effective democratic governance in the context of challenges that often transcend ordinary political boundaries and institutionalized routines.

The core of this book reflects a convergence between two distinct lines of research. The first is a critical review of current empirical research on the form and functioning of public space, with the purpose of integrating empirical findings from different disciplinary perspectives within a theoretical and practical framework that links aspects of public space often regarded separately: the physical design of urban spaces, social processes that constitute meaningful places, and the creation of social capital as a condition for effective democratic politics. The book will build on the database of research currently being assembled by a multidisciplinary international team of researchers, as a project of the Center for the Future of Places at KTH, and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

The second line of research traces the recent history of efforts to reform the practice of urban planning in the context of a normative conception of urbanism, and a design-centered practice of urbanism.

The gaps and contradictions in the research literature leave us between the horns of a practical dilemma. The positive revitalization of public space, intended to enhance urban livability, is associated with gentrification, displacement and exclusion. Where public space is defined in terms of access and visibility, the problem of free and open access becomes a problem of social control. If public space is defined in terms of open access, its safety and comfort often comes to depend on restricting who uses the space and for what purpose. These contradictions are at the heart of common conceptions of public space.

This paper outlines a framework for connecting design-oriented research on accommodating and encouraging social interaction in public space with investigation of broader questions regarding civic engagement, social justice and democratic governance. How can we define the “kind of problem a city is,” (Jacobs, 1961), simultaneously attending to the social processes at stake in urban places, the spatial ordering of urban form and the construction of the forms of agency that enable us to make better places on purpose? How can empirical research be connected more systematically to theories of democratic governance, with clear implications for urban design, urban and regional planning as professional practice? This framework connects three distinct theoretical moves: , 1) understanding the sociological implications of public space as an urban commons; (2) connecting the making of public space to research on social capital and collective efficacy; (3) understanding recent tendencies in the discipline of urban design in terms of the social construction of a “program of action” (Latour, 1992) at the heart of the professional practices relevant to the built environment.

In addition to reviewing the growing body of empirical research relevant to understanding the importance and functioning of public space, the book will use selected case studies to serve as illuminating and accessible examples of the ideas derived from the research literature.

There seem to be two potentially contradictory reasons for renewed attention to public space in recent years. The first seems to be its relationship to the idea of “place making” and its importance in creating an urban environment that can attract both investment and population. Perhaps ironically, the other seems related to the consequences of urban redevelopment, and the way a variety of social, economic and political processes have dramatically reshaped urban landscapes around the globe. Even as cities have confronted the consequences of ethnic diversity, stark economic inequality and unevenly distributed environmental risks, public space has been steadily eroded by privatization and securitization. Questions regarding the nature and significance of public space are at the intersection of a range of issues regarding structures of power, economic inequality, environmental justice and the “right to the city.” Both of these perspectives share the idea that public space is somehow essential to the vitality of urban public life. Both are embedded in efforts to revive a normative ideal of urbanism.

Critical discussions of public space, however, often rely more on normative assumptions, popular conceptions and wishful thinking than on careful consideration of the available research. At the same time, empirical studies of public life in urban spaces are often narrowly focused and only loosely connected to some of the broader issues regarding the functions of public space in a diverse community. Theoretical arguments suggest public space might be regarded as a medium for the production of social capital, and as a practical space for democratic engagement. How does the empirical research support this notion, helping us understand exactly how to realize this promise, from the standpoint of urban design, social policy and democratic governance? What does empirical research in a variety of disciplines tell us about how, exactly, the effects of public space are operationalized? What are the implications for the practices of planning and designing more resilient, equitable, and ecologically responsible cities?

The concept of social capital has been popularized as part of understanding the conditions necessary to support civic engagement, as a foundation for effective and resilient democratic governance (Putnam). As a research industry has grown up around the concept of social capital, it has offered empirical support for its importance for a range of issues related to public safety, public health, individual mental health, crime prevention and public order. Community leaders, activists and social service providers have focused on building social capital as a necessary part of creating healthy communities.

Arguments regarding social capital are often cited as a justification for attention to public space, and public space regarded as a site where the formation of social capital can be facilitated. On the production side, this book will also explore the ways that social capital is important for the process of place-making, suggesting that the process of design and planning great places might be understood as fundamentally about the formation of social capital. When we accomplish a certain kind of urbanism, we are essentially accomplishing a certain kind of social capital, one that is enacted in and through the making of places and that comes to be inscribed in the built environment.

One of the problems with specialized research is that it can often be difficult for the non-specialist to understand, much less translate into practical action. This book will be designed both to integrate theory and empirical findings across disciplines, and to translate the resulting synthesis into accessible concepts and practical suggestions, using illustrative examples wherever possible. Ultimately the goal of this book is to illuminate and encourage an emerging practice of civic urbanism, understanding urbanism as a body of practice that encompasses, at its core, the articulation a revived domain of civic engagement. 

Belongs to: Centre for the Future of Places
Last changed: May 05, 2020