The pandemic is depriving us of public space: the main setting for politics, sociability, equality. We are perhaps living out the final chapter of a process that has impoverished our living environments: if neoliberalism had started this work by privatizing cities and squares, the virus is taking it to completion. It is therefore the right time to reflect on the qualities of common places and spaces, and on our urban future.
“We will live online,” was the epigram-like reflection coming from a friend who is a philosopher in the moments in which domestic detention was being extended to 60 million Italians. We will learn, give lessons, work, consume, socialize from within the walls of our homes (for those who are lucky enough to have one).
The glimpse into a coming dystopian and techno-fascist future is becoming more and more concrete. The world’s population, secluded in the name of its own survival, is being deprived of all collective spaces: schools and university classrooms, theaters and cinemas, churches and museums. Even streets and squares, forests, beaches and countryside landscapes have suddenly become off limits for everyone. With the exception, naturally, of those responsible for keeping the human race alive, from doctors to farmers.
Everyone has now experienced the poverty of meaning of a life understood within (and shrunk down to) the domestic space alone. A paradigmatic example is online schooling. Teachers are now in their living rooms and students in their bedrooms: the domestic terminal points of a dematerialized relationship.
The lack of public places and environments, of sociability exercised in the common space, has greatly increased the “shadow work” falling on the shoulders of women, and has exacerbated social differences. The wealthy are in their comfortable houses, with large terraces and views of the landscape. The subaltern, however, are in poorly designed, peripheral apartments, piled up in inhuman block-like structures. Many are living with the tragedies of disability, psychological problems, alcohol and domestic violence.
But public space is not only “what is outside.” It is, conversely, the beating heart of a civil society. Public space is, according to Simone Weil (1949), “a need of the soul”: the participation in, and use of, public space have social value. For Weil, the luxury of these common spaces (understood as the greatness of architecture, its richness in signification, its generosity in terms of volumes and surfaces) must be universally enjoyable, must be able to reach even the most humble.
Meanwhile Hannah Arendt (1958) tied political life (“acting together”) to the continued existence of the “common world,” more recently Françoise Choay remarked that the symbolic value of public space is able to confirm “our state of culture and our human identities over time.” Therefore, the existence and the right to the common space is a guarantee of political action and of cultural and anthropological continuity.
The urban planner Edoardo Salzano has repeatedly underlined that the universal right to public space in Italy has been won through social and political conflict. The struggle—an eminently feminist one—was the one that triggered the spark: a decree from 1968 (yes, the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty eight…) granted to each resident a minimum quota of public facilities: gardens, schools, theatres, clinics, etc.; and formulated this right administratively in the form of “urban planning standards.”
In the years of neoliberalism, Decree 1444/1968 was dismantled in favor of an urban governance within a corporatist framework. The minimum endowment in terms of services and amenities was reduced to “monetization,” to be invested in generic “urban regeneration” (an operation that then encouraged the raising of real estate prices as the result of the actions of the public). Then, the “works decree” of 2013 left a free hand to the regions, which can now derogate from the provisions that guaranteed the essential levels of civil and social services on the Italian territory.
During the same years, the city was privatized (also) in its physical consistency: streets, squares and state buildings, all systematically sold off for the benefit of private interest. Our common experience includes the erosion of public space within the so-called “great stations,” where travelers and commuters are forced to navigate a maze-like course between one boutique and another. In the monumental squares, reduced to a backdrop for consumer use, a stage for commercial events, we find an exemplary demonstration of the shift—an underhanded one—from public use to private “enclosure.”
Today, isolated and secluded as we are, we clearly perceive the social and anthropological value of the common and public space. We therefore believe that there is an urgent need to reactivate a debate that can lead to a social demand for the return of the right to public space—and, therefore, political space.