Grounding the paradox of cohesion and contestation in public space

Monday, 8 November, 2021 - 16:00

Presented by : 

Middelmann &

Assumptions surrounding public space and norms in Johannesburg’s public space management and policies appear to be based on core aims such as inclusivity and justice which ultimately aspire to social cohesion. These aspirational policies align with the assumptions of social contact theory and other related literature, which assumes the availability, accessibility and usability of public spaces in Johannesburg will lead to social cohesion through drawing South Africans from diverse race and class backgrounds into the same space. However, critical public space theory also points to the necessity of contestation in and through public space for functioning democracies, especially in highly unequal societies. The necessary questions which arise include: How is public space assumed to create cohesion? What existing realities form obstacles to the functionality of these assumptions, and how? What does it mean when we expect cohesion but find tension and conflict as well? And what can this tell us about public space policies and management of normative transformations in Johannesburg’s public space? Our public space research in Johannesburg found that these assumptions do not always translate easily into the experience of public space. Our findings suggest that 1) where cohesion is expected instead we find a spectrum of experiences ranging across cohesion, collaboration, tension and conflict; 2) these tensions are located in our understanding and framing of public space, the public who uses space, and the relationship between them; 3) and the implications twofold: first, city government and policies need to reflect plans for a just, inclusive, and cohesive public as much as aspiring to spaces which model such norms; and second, further research is needed into the interrelationship between aspiring toward just, inclusive, cohesive public space, and the lived experience of public space in Johannesburg and cities like it. This work in progress reflects the iterative processes of observational and participatory public space research on one hand and our engagements with theory and policy.

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