Tuesday, 23 August 2011

What is the truly public sphere?

So my holidays were really enjoyable - thanks for asking.

What they revealed to me most of all, as a historian of public policy, is the true nature of really public space.

I've been on the South West Coast Path (above) - this year's leg took me from Westward Ho! (nearly) to Boscastle, across the Devon - Cornwall 'county line'. And I've been to the Nelson Street 'See No Evil' street art festival, which has transformed a truly ugly part of central Bristol into a vibrant, colourful, multi-layered palimpsest of image and meaning.

What did I learn? Well, our society is highly ordered, very closed, and not very mobile. A great deal of our lives are spent privately - in our gardens, our houses, our armchairs, watching our TVs. You know the sort of thing.

But that means that really open spaces, areas that can be shared with other people - unexpected people, different people, interesting people - become even more charged. A couple of times on the coast path there were private gardens with chairs set out to look at the breathtaking sea and scenery - but there was a public bench right next to it, with just the same view, but 'won' by trudging through miles and miles of publicly-provided beauty. Which would I prefer? Well, I think that moving, changing, unrolling scenery better than a fixed view that was forever 'mine'.

I'll be talking about this later in the week, but it really gives the lie to all those writers who argue that the only truly defensible and cared-for spaces are those that are privately owned and individually defended. It also shows how wrong theorists of the so-called 'public sphere', such as Jurgen Harbermas, really were when they cited the heights of that phenomenon in the eighteenth century and the bourgeois salon or coffee house.

What's the most successful public sphere since modernity? For me, it's the social democratic triumphs of the National Parks Act (1949), the long-distance national trails (such as the South West Coast Path) created by the Labour Government of 1964-70, and the 'right to roam' legislation passed in the year 2000. None of these were provided by bourgeois thinkers musing away. They were built by broad progressive coalitions of the centre and the left.

That's not to say that communally-provided areas and events are better than what you can do in your private garden.

But it's to at least say this: I love them. And so do millions of others.

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