Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Right to Public Space: From Community Gardens to the POPS, the NY Commons as a public trust for all

A message from Spock for our commons.

This week, my daughter's class put on a play about US geography.  In it, aliens from outer space visit the US to see what state they should  move to, stumbling over the grand canyon, learning about Creole food in New Orleans, exploring the states from coast to coast.  What the play did not include were the often privatized immigration customs enforcement (ICE) detention centers undocumented aliens  are sent to if they show up without papers, where they are held without charges, separated from their families, their kids generally ending up in a form of foster care, away from their parents.  Those allowed to stay frequently forced to go to demeaning check in with officials from ICE scrutinizing their comings and goings. We are less and less welcoming to strangers in our public commons.  

science fiction tales for our times. 

Today, the right to public space is increasingly contested.  Yet, we do have a right to public space.  As my friend Greg Smithsimon puts it:

“At the center of virtually every major protest movement in recent years has been a central public space. Anti-Mubarak protesters filled Tahrir Square in Egypt, just as anti-government protesters in Ukraine filled Independence Square. Indignados took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol a few months before Occupy Wall Street took over Liberty Plaza in New York City, and each protest spread to new plazas in new cities. The importance of public spaces for social movements is not a recent phenomenon, as the 1989 protests associated with Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or the Argentinean group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo both demonstrate.
While each of these movements grew to significance in a central, symbolic public space, increasing numbers of people around the world have little access to such public spaces, using privately owned spaces for activities that once took place in public. From Calgary to Johannesburg, people shop in privately owned malls rather than market streets. From the suburbs of Shanghai to Las Vegas, they live in suburban developments that lack sidewalks or parks. And from New York to Santiago, they gather and eat lunch in plazas that are privately owned annexes to office buildings rather than public squares. Particularly in suburbs, there may be no public space. Elsewhere on the neoliberal landscape, spaces that filled the traditional functions of the public square have been privatized, encouraging owners and the state to claim that people no longer have free-speech rights there.
Public space is fundamental to the exercise of US civil liberties and internationally recognized human rights.”

Yet, Smithsimon notes, “The Threat to Public Space: Rights Against Privatization” must be articulated and supported. 

You cannot commodify happiness. 

In other words, we have to create a new way to define the importance of space, articulate it, and push back against models of urban space as a shopping mall.  Main street is has died in countless cities.  Others have no public spaces, only private shopping malls where courts have ruled free speech rules do not exist.

Locations for 16 gardens under threat, the private consuming the public.

Yet, here in New York we are pushing back.  The NYCCG is pushing to support community gardens (16 of which the city plans to bulldoze to make way for housing people cannot afford).  And the NY Commons is organized to protect public spaces more broadly.  We held a meeting this past Thursday.  The invite declared:

Good afternoon,
I’m writing to introduce NYCommons, a project of the Urban Justice Center, Common Cause 
New York, and the Fund for Public Advocacy. NYCommons is in the planning stages, and we would like your input to help shape this into a powerful citywide coalition to influence policy making around how the city deals with its public assets.
One of the goals of the project is to provide local stakeholders with tools needed to impact decisions around the future of their parks, libraries,community gardens, and other publicly held spaces. By creating accessible information about who controls these public assets, how decisions about the properties are made, and how members of the public can influence these choices, NYCommons seeks to help communities raise their voices to ensure that local people will continue to enjoy the benefits of shared space for generations to come.  Together we will develop a citywide framework to address the issues raised by decisions affecting future use of public places.

Today, the group I work with, Public Space Party, has been asking ourselves and others what public space means, whether we need public space party, or what we should do with public space?  For many of us, the answer is simple, occupy it and see what happens.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be doing just this, starting next Saturday March 21.

Poems and gardens overlap in countless ways. 

Saturday March 21, Meet 2pm at Siempre Verde Garden, corner of Stanton & Attorney Streets. 

Join Public Space Party as we celebrate the Poetry of Pedro Pietri, the Nuyorican poet, playwright, founder of the Nuyorican Movement. We'll romp around the Lower East Side Community Gardens, starting at Siempre Verde Garden, meandering to Green Oasis, Petit Versailles, and then ending at the community garden, El Jardin del Paraiso NYC. Pedro's birthday is that day, March 21. Bring one of Pedro's poems or your own, a love story, a moment lost and found. We welcome all poems and stories. 

Other upcoming events in our spring public space fling, include our:

April 8th, lunch at the POPS, at 622 3rd Avenue POPS arcade.  (The security at this pops told us we could not eat there.  On April 8th, we’ll come back and enjoy our right to dine and enjoy this public space).

April 21 Join us for a bike ride through the endangered community gardens.

At the commons meeting, NYCCG President Ray Figueroa and several of us talked about the need to document the social rate of return for a community gardens and public spaces.  Wendy of Greenmap talked about the ways we document our investments in public spaces, highlighting what we’re put in and the community is getting out of this sweat equity.  Others talked about reimagining the commons. 

Figueroa highlighted the work of Sheila Foster and her paper, “The City as an Ecological Space, Social Capital and Urban Land Use.”  Foster points to the importance of social capital, writing:

“This otherwise economic view of land use law is also rooted, however, in an ecological understanding of urban land use. Legal scholars writing over three decades ago successfully argued, based upon the ecological facts of life, that "[p]roperty does not exist in isolation" because the effects of its uses flow outside of the boundaries of ownership. The notion that property is inextricably part of a network of social and economic relationships, and that its impacts traverse legally defined boundaries and relationships, is now deeply enshrined in our regulation of public and private land...
Social capital in this Article refers to the ways in which individuals and communities create trust, maintain social networks, and establish norms that enable participants to act cooperatively toward the pursuit of shared goals. The question that this Article asks is how, if at all, we account for a community's social capital in land use law and policy. This inquiry is based on the assumption that decisions about physical urban form and design often, but not always, exist in a highly interactive (and integrated) relationship with the social structure and organization of urban communities.” 

Thus, decisions about land use must be made with an appreciation of the rich maze of networks they create.  These spaces support more then just open space.  They are our commons.  As Figueroa talked about, referring to the work of Carl Rose on public trust doctrine.  Rose (1998, 351) asks:

First, what is the public trust as a legal matter? Until it was revived and re-invented by Sax, the doctrine held that some resources, particularly lands beneath navigable waters or washed by the tides, are either inherently the property of the public at large, or are at least subject to a kind of inherent easement for certain public purposes.2 Those purposes are foremost navigation and travel, to a lesser extent fishing, and lesser still recreation and public gatherings.3 This set of notions first appeared in Roman law and has floated through English and now American law.4

From the garden of eden to the city on a hill, the idea of the commons has deep roots.

Our commons is our public trust; from community gardens to POPS, streets to parks, from the skies to the water, this is our space space; it is everyone’s.   This is our world and our commons.  It is part of what John Winthrop talked about when he considered the US experiment in democracy as a city on a hill.   This is an idealized green space, open for all, not a privatized shopping mall, with its ticky tackies. We have to keep it clean, open, and accessible to all, for art, and creativity and democratic engagement.  After all, public space is a fundamental right.  We need to articulate this, defend it from the privatizers, and create more of it.  Our democracy, our city depends upon it.  

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