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Public-Making and Spatial Justice

Excerpted from Public-Making and Spatial Justice in Spatial Justice 2.0 (2019-2020)

| 5 min read

We situate what we call public-making—the collective creation and activation of public spaces for interaction and belonging—as a way to organize and take on new forms of sociability. What would happen if people had places that connected public space and public discourse, outdoor play and collective healing, pop-up performances and shared food, movie nights and performance art? What if we used public space for the collective creation of opportunities for interaction, laughter, dialogue, learning and surprise? We imagine the possibilities for multi-textured and joyous counter-atmospheres that challenge this moment of increased isolation, tension and repression. We believe public-making—especially by those who regularly experience spatial injustice—is both radical and transformative. Our informal “Public Making Manifesto” goes like this: 

We are the public. 
We belong in public space. 
We can create our own public life. 
Public-making can change the future.

We’d like to propose some areas of investigation for those of us concerned with spatial justice, public culture, urban and placed experience, and the aesthetics of social life. 

1. More public discourse in space

How might we explore the production of public discourse in space? When and where can we talk about things and practice learning how to engage with people we haven’t met? These kinds of practices are a major part of civic engagement, but those opportunities aren’t often situated in the public in such a way that they are permeable. And when events that have a focus on discussion happen in public places like libraries, they are often only attended by those already on some list to find out about them. In that sense, they are only permeable for a pretty limited public, one that is seeking that kind of space.

Perhaps public making that lends itself to more low-threshold dialogue and conversation with strangers would be a draw for people that haven’t identified themselves as such. If we built it, who would come? How could informal, public conversations help diverse communities step into collective sense-making?

2. More opportunities to dance, sing and play together

Most of the dancing we see in the streets in the U.S. context tends to be street performers with routines they run in touristy areas for tips, along with the occasional one-off more produced event. The most inviting “jump in and join us” experiences tend to be limited to annual celebrations like Carnival, Caribbean Festival and Gay Pride events. How might we explore and create different spaces and increased opportunities for collective participation in singing, dancing, acting and playing? 

One intervention we created and tested was Dance Court, where we posed the question: “What if Dance Courts were part of the ubiquitous landscape, like basketball and tennis courts? How would you use them?” Dancing is just one way to join each other in joy and movement. What are other ways we might want to prototype opportunities for collective singing, drumming, playing and healing together? 

Making events could build a collective form of expression

3. More opportunities to make and learn 

When do we get to make things together in public? And what would we make? There’s fabulous float-making culture related to Carnival but that is still fairly enclosed. There is sand-castle making culture at beaches, but that is also enclosed, usually by family. Collective making could look all kinds of ways—from collective cooking to learning how to do t-shirt printing, carpentry and construction, bike-fixing, button-making and more. Making events could build a collective form of expression, like a mosaic or barn-raising, or perhaps the shared nature of the event is more in the multi-directional flow of knowledge. 

What about creating other porous opportunities to learn and share knowledge? The internet has largely turned into an echo chamber, so views and new information are narrowly shared amongst circles of users. Could we use physical opportunities in space and time to better democratize the kinds of insights that one might come across? How could we democratize information, whether it’s health insights like healing uses of honey, knowledge about products or practices that are earth-friendly, or new ways to engage in our state’s budgeting or policy-making? How might more porous opportunities to find out about things you never thought about create or produce a public? What new conversations and friendships might arise over a found passion for cooking with purple peas or debating the latest pop craze? 

These are just a few examples of what public-making might include. There are many others already out there, and many still to be imagined. As we consider public-making as a strategy for spatial justice, it’s important to not just have a diversity of content but a diversity of scale. To us, there’s no such thing as “too much” public-making. If our next Public Kitchen bumps up against someone else’s collective reading event, which is down the street from a block party, that’s across from a mobile pottery kiln next to the neighborhood skate park, we are creating not just individual spaces of belonging and connection but a whole web of it. Similarly, if one event is a one-off, while one happens monthly and one happens every day or night, we have another type of web of duration and frequency. We believe that the more instances of public-making that folks bump into, the more they will also feel the authority and inspiration to create their own.

For context, see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

By Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine for Design Studio for Social Intervention

Excerpted from Public-Making and Spatial Justice in Spatial Justice 2.0 (2019-2020)

Banner iamge: Smallie Michelle leading a community dance class for the inPUBLIC event organized by Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, September 13, 2019. Photo by Lori Lobenstine.


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