International Working Group on Public Space and Diversity

Co-ordinators: Setha Low and Darshan Vigneswaran

This group is concerned with the manifestation, experience and regulation of diversity in the city. We take as our starting point the idea that all social phenomena – diversity included – are strongly shaped by their unique spatial setting, local context and urban form. The layout of recreational spaces, the aesthetics of the built environment, and our empathic relationships to the world around us all condition how we move through space and encounter one another. Recognising that public space has long played a prominent role in mediating social and cultural differences, this group is particularly concerned with the new types of public space that are emerging in highly diverse urban contexts and what these places tell us about broader patterns of social and political change. This is a non-exhaustive sample of some of empirical questions we are interested in pursuing: What role does public space play in shaping relations of diversity? To what extent do these effects depend on historical structures and architectural vestiges as compared with fleeting encounters and bodily experience? In relation to both questions: how do forms of public space in the Global South differ to counterparts in the Global North?

While this group is in its early stages of development we have already identified some key ways in which we hope to contribute to the discussion on contemporary public spaces. First, we aim to develop a cross-disciplinary conversation between socio-cultural analyses which commonly emphasise interaction, conviviality and community with political and economic analyses that emphasize resource inequalities, lack of representation, segregation, social distancing, conflict and control. Second, we hope to expand the geographical focus of the literature, drawing on the detailed and nuanced debates on public space in the Global North, to forge new pathways in less studied but rapidly growing cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Third, we propose to develop a more integrated and powerful framework for thinking about as well as planning public space.

The first task of the working group was to sketch the contours of the field by compiling a bibliography of core texts. We then assembled a steering committee of eight scholars who worked across a broad range of urban contexts - São Paulo, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Delhi, New York, Paris, San Jose and Sydney – in order to generate a genuinely global perspective on the state of the field. For our inaugural working group meeting in Berlin (May, 2012) each of these group members composed a vision statement outlining their understanding of the emerging field and helped to develop four taskforces to generate research plans, writing projects and funding proposals on core areas of research: the history of public spaces, social justice and public space, the mediation of diversity in public space and public spaces and diversity in the Global South. At the same meeting, a wider group of members provided critical feedback on the group’s aims and agenda. Over the next two years members of the group will reconvene at the international conferences to present panels and develop proposals to fund the group’s activities over the longer term. The group’s currently funded activities conclude in Cape Town early 2014 where we will stage a conference that draws together the work of the four groups into a synthetic book length project.