Making public interventions in today’s massive cities

Saskia Sassen

Making public interventions in today´s massive cities

The enormity of the urban experience, the overwhelming presence of massive architectures and dense infrastructures, as well as the irresistible utility logics that organize much of the investments in today's major cities, have produced displacement and estrangement among many individuals and whole communities. Such conditions unsettle older notions and experiences of the city generally and public space in particular. This is probably most acute in global cities. The monumentalized public spaces of states and monarchs remain vibrant sites for rituals and routines, for demonstrations and festivals. But increasingly the overall sense is of a shift from civic to politicized urban space, with fragmentations along multiple differences.

Hilary Koob-Sassen. Endless City, 2008.

 Hilary Koob-Sassen. Endless City, 2008.

At the same time, these cities contain a diversity of under-used spaces, often characterised more by memory than current meaning. These spaces are part of the interiority of a city, yet lie outside of its organising utility-driven logics and spatial frames. They are 'terrains vagues' that allow many residents to connect to the rapidly transforming cities in which they live, and to bypass subjectively the massive infrastructures that have come to dominate more and more spaces in their cities. Jumping at these terrains vagues in order to maximize real estate development would be a mistake from this perspective. Keeping some of this openness, might, further, make sense in terms of factoring future options at a time when utility logics change so quickly and often violently-excess of high rise office buildings being one of the great examples.

This opens up a salient dilemma about the current urban condition in ways that take it beyond the fairly transparent notions of high-tech architecture, virtual spaces, simulacra, theme parks. All of the latter matter, but they are fragments of an incomplete puzzle. There is a type of urban condition that dwells between the reality of massive structures and the reality of semi-abandoned places. I think it is central to the experience of the urban, and it makes legible transitions and unsettlements of specific spatio-temporal configurations. Architecture and urban design can also function as critical artistic practices that allow us to capture something more elusive than what is represented by notions such as the theme-parking of cities.

All of this brings to the fore the importance of the actual making of public space under conditions where the privatizing and the weaponizing of urban space are becoming extreme. We see here a shift in the meanings of the urban condition.

Public making aginst the privatizing and weaponizing of urban space

The making and siting of public space is one lens into these types of questions. We are living through a kind of crisis in public space resulting from its growing commercialization, theme-parking, and privatizing. The grand monumentalized public spaces of the state and the crown, especially in former imperial capitals, dominate our experiences. Users do render them public through their practices. But what about the actual making of public space in these complex cities, both through architectural interventions and through users practices?

Dwelling between mega buildings and terrain vagues has long been part of the urban experience. In the past as today, this dwelling makes legible transitions and unsettlements. It can also reinsert the possibility of urban making - poesis - in a way that massive projects by themselves do not. The "making" that concerns me here is of modest public spaces, constituted through the practices of people and critical architectural interventions that are on small or medium level scales. My concern here is not with monumentalized public spaces or ready-made public spaces that are actually better described as public-access than public. The making of public space opens up questions about the current urban condition in ways that the grand spaces of the crown and the state or over-designed public-access spaces do not.

The work of capturing this elusive quality that cities produce and make legible, and the work of making public space in this in-between zone, is not easily executed. Utility logics won't do. I can't help but think that the making of art is part of the answer-whether ephemeral public performances and installations or more lasting types of public sculpture, whether site-specific/community-based art, or nomadic sculptures that circulate among localities. Further, the new network technologies open up wide this question of making in modest spaces and through the practices of people. One question that might serve to capture critical features of this project is How do we urbanize open-source?

Architectural practices are central here, specifically those which can take place in problematic or unusual spaces. This takes architects able to navigate several forms of knowledge so as to introduce the possibility of architecture in spaces where the naked eye or the engineer's imagination sees no shape, no possibility of a form, only pure infrastructure and utility. The types of space I have in mind are, for instance, intersections of multiple transport and communication networks, the roofs of recycling plants or water purification systems, small awkward unused spaces that have been forgotten or do not fit the needs of utility driven plans, and so on. Another instance is a space that requires the work of detecting possible architectures where there now is merely a formal silence, a non-existence, such as a modest and genuinely undistinguished terrain vague --not a grand terrain vague that becomes magnificent through the scale of its decay, as might an old unused industrial harbor or steel factory.

The possibility of this type of making, detecting, and intervening has assumed new meanings over the last two decades, a period marked by the ascendance of private authority/power over spaces once considered public. Further, over the last five years especially, the state has sought to weaponize urban space and to make it an object for surveillance. At the same time, the increasing legibility of restrictions, surveillance and displacements is politicizing urban space.

Most familiar, perhaps, is the impact of high-income residential and commercial gentrification, which generates a displacement that can feed the making of a political subjectivity centred in contestation rather than a sense of the civic on either side of the conflict. The physical displacement of low-income households, non-profit uses and low-profit neighbourhood firms makes visible a power relationship - direct control by one side over the other as expressed directly in evictions or indirectly through the market. This politicizing of urban space and its legibility is also evident in the proliferation of physical barriers in erstwhile public spaces, perhaps most pronounced in US cities, and most visible since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

US embassies worldwide increasingly resemble medieval fortresses. In this context public-access space is an enormous resource, and we need more of it. But let us not confuse public-access space with public space. The latter requires making - through the practices and the subjectivities of people. Through their practices, users of the space wind up making diverse kinds of publicness.


In brief, several trends are coming together enabling practices and imaginaries about making, rather than merely accessing, public space. One concerns some of the conditions discussed above, specifically today's wider unsettlements of older notions of public space. These unsettlements arise from the limits of public-space-making in monumentalized spaces as well as from the shifts towards politicizing urban space and weakening civic experiences in cities. Both conditions produce openings to the experience and the option of making.

A second trend is the option of making modest public spaces, which may well be critical for recovering the possibility of making spaces public. This type of making was historically significant in European cities and diverges as a project from the making of grand monumentalized spaces: it entailed making in the interstices of the spaces of royalty and the state. Today this type of making is geared to the interstices of private and public power, and adds a novel dimension: the repositioning of the notion and the experience of locality, and thereby of modest public spaces, in potentially global networks comprising multiple such localities.

A third trend is the delicate negotiation between the renewed valuing of diversity, as illustrated in multiculturalism, and the renewed challenges this poses to notions and experiences of the public.


Saskia Sassen is the Lynd Professor of Sociology and Member, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Her new books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages ( Princeton University Press 2008) and A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007) both published in Spanish with Editorial Katz (Buenos Aires and Madrid) in 2008.

Other recent books are the 3rd. fully updated Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2006) and the edited Deciphering the Global (Routledge 2007). She has just completed for UNESCO a five-year project on sustainable human settlement with a network of researchers and activists in over 30 countries; it is published as one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (Oxford, UK: EOLSS Publishers) http://www.eolss.net. Her books are translated into sixteen languages. She has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek International, the Financial Times, among others. Website: http://www.columbia.edu/~sjs2/

Ed. Katz (Buenos Aires and Madrid) has published Spanish translations of both A Sociology of Globalization and Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages.