Social Geography discussing public spaces as places where everyone is welcome and is free to express their identity
Public spaces are defined as places where there is inclusion, open-mindedness, equality, and acceptance, no matter where an individual stands in the rank of society (Iveson 2003; Iveson 2007; Nolan 2003) But public spaces are often not always what they should be and this is because dominant groups, politics, culture, and power dictates who is in and out of place and the appropriate uses of these spaces (Valentine 2007)
This highly critical and political view of public spaces means that identities are constantly changing to adapt to different spaces and different contexts, they’re never fixed (Valentine 2007). This essay will explore how public spaces are not always places where everyone is welcome and are free to express their identity through the key points of identity constructed through norms of belonging, power and status determining inclusion/exclusion in public spaces and the influence of politics on belonging in public spaces.
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Identity Constructed Through Norms of Belonging
Identity in public spaces as addressed above are fluid and ever-changing in different spatial contexts (Valentine 2007). One of the reasons for this is because different public spaces are governed by different norms that deem what is acceptable and what is not (Nolan 2003). It can be suggested then that, in many public spaces individuals adhere to the socially accepted norms, and don’t freely express their identity. For example young women attending night clubs detailed how they must ‘dress up’ and adhere to certain feminine stereotypes (showing cleavage) to gain entry from bouncers (Waitt, Jessop, & Gorman-Murray 2011). For the girls studied in this article, norms about clubs/pubs spaces dictated their identities when they went out and dressed up’, thus they were conforming to the objective male gazes and not freely expressing identity (Waitt, Jessop, & Gorman-Murray 2011).
Power and Status Determining Inclusion/Exclusion in Public Spaces
Public spaces are not always a place where everyone is welcome and free to express their identity, and this is partially due to social powers and their locations within our society. The locations of power concern the way groups and individuals are viewed within society (Iveson 2007, Dunn 2001). Many groups are excluded, not tolerated, frowned upon and feared, simply because they do not fit the conventional use of space decided by a general majority (Iveson 2007, Nolan 2003, Dunn 2001). As discussed by Iveson (2007) public spaces are becoming more neo-liberalised as a result of globalisation and capitalist underpinnings. These spaces are an object of majority public action and higher status social groups usually dominate and dictate the use of space over lower status social groups.
Consequently, this has rejected minority groups (lower status social groups) deemed ‘anti-social’ to the fringes of spaces, or imposed heavy restrictions on them to move through public spaces. For example, Nolan (2003) discusses young people and their use of skateboards through shopping areas. Skateboarders (particularly youths) are viewed by the dominant group (adults) as actively transgressing the use of space in the mall, which is viewed as an economic and socialising place for adults. The solution for the majority who use the space was for a ban on skateboards and a skate park located on the fringe of the city, away from the shopping centre (Nolan 2003). This actively highlights the locations of dominant social power in our public spaces, and how minority groups like skateboarding youths are viewed as transgressively using space because they don’t conform to the dominant group’s values of public space. Again this proves that not everyone is welcome or accepted in public spaces.
Influence of Politics on Belonging in Public Spaces
Politics greatly influence who uses and how public spaces are used, through laws, social norms, media and cultural perceptions (Iveson 2007; Iveson 2003; Dunn 2001). And this in turn means that public spaces are not always places where everyone is welcome and is free to express their identity. Politics define the normative and appropriate uses of space and who is, therefore, cast as, ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’. The media is a prominent example of how groups/individuals are constructed to be made out of place in public areas. This is seen in the Australian media portrayal of Muslims, as the ‘other’, fanatical, and terrorists (Dunn 2001). This repetition and social construction of stereotypes are then taken for the truth (Dunn 2001), therefore the consequences of this make white Australian Anglo Saxon public spaces normative and safe, whereas Muslim spaces (such as Mosques) are transgressive and deviant (Dunn 2001).
Laws are another political design that uses public space and how it is used. As highlighted by Iveson (2007) laws that introduced curfews for children in the city of Perth, effectively excluded youths in places that were defined in economic, family and tourism terms by the politics of the city. These youths were actively denied symbolic involvement in the gentrification of the city as well as physical access to public spaces within; simply because they did not use the city in the way it was designed and approved by the government (Iveson 2007). Another instance of law dictating who uses public spaces was the battle over McIvers Bath. The exclusion of males was readily justified on the terms that it allowed public sociability that was not possible in unisex spaces (Iveson 2003). Yet this law could also be debated that it just preferentially treated females over males, ending in permanent exclusion (Iveson 2003). Politics greatly dictate how and by whom public space is used, and this result in exclusion for individuals/groups and possible false identities.
By delving and critically discussing the statement ‘public spaces are places where everyone is welcome and is free to express their identity and well-detailed examples, it can be understood that public space is not welcoming and free for everyone to express their identities. This is due to the three main arguments listed above; an identity that is constructed through the norms of different public spaces, and not a true reflection of the individuals own identity. Status within social contexts determines who has the power to inscribe use and meaning to public spaces, and how they effectively exclude ‘others’ who don’t use the space as they deem appropriate.
And lastly how politics effectively, exclude those who don’t use space in its designed or intentional manner, through media and law. Public spaces will always be contested, as long as there are differences and minorities within our societies. To create public spaces that are welcoming to everyone, society will have to focus on addressing and overcoming our inharmonious relations and focus on what brings us together. To belong is the ultimate goal.
Iveson, K 2003, ‘Justifying exclusion: the politics of public space and the dispute over access to McIver’s ladies’ baths’, Gender, Place and Culture, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 215-228.
Dunn, K 2001, ‘Representations of Islam in the politics of mosque development in Sydney’, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, vol. 92, no. 3, pp. 291-308.
Nolan, N 2003, ‘The ins and outs of skateboarding and transgression in public space in Newcastle, Australia’, Australian Geographer, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 311-327.
Valentine, G 2007, ‘Theorizing and researching intersectionality: a challenge for feminist geography’, The Professional Geographer, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 10-21.
Waitt, G., Jessop, L., and Gorman-Murray, A 2011, ‘The guys in there just expect to be laid: embodied and gendered socio-spatial practices of a ‘night out’ in Wollongong, Australia’, Gender, Place and Culture, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 255-275
Iveson, K 2007, Publics and the city, Blackwell, Oxford. (Chapter 6: ‘no fun. No hope. Don’t belong.’ Remaking ‘public space’ in neo-liberal Perth’).
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