Whose Public? Questions of Spatial Justice in a Time of Public Breaking

Whose Public? Questions of Spatial Justice in a Time of Public Breaking

By Guest Author Lori Lobenstine 

About the Author: Lori Lobenstine co-leads the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), a Boston-based creativity lab dedicated to changing how social justice is imagined, developed and deployed in the United States. 

As we ease COVID-19 closures, many of us are wrestling with the question of how to inclusively, joyously, and safely welcome people back into public spaces. Even as we do so, the constant police and vigilante shootings of Black people stop us in our tracks. The past rushes into the present. Notions of a collective “we” get further torn apart. 

As images of state and state-sanctioned violence fill our devices again and again, our experiences with that violence are not collective. For most whites, these acts of terrorism are not aimed at us. They can horrify and deeply sadden us, but we can look away. For Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, these acts—and the nonstop images they produce—often add to the trauma of their own and their loved ones’ lived experiences with that violence. 

At times like this, the slow work of building connections and trust feels both vital and incommensurate. Ideas of “placemaking” sound quaint in the face of such aggressive place-breaking. How can we—municipal staff, activists, planners, artists, residents—ground our work together in ways that instantiate justice in public space? 

A recent virtual workshop series DS4SI led with MAPC and the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), Whose Public? Planning and Placemaking for Welcoming Public Spaces, brought together artists, planners, activists, and municipal staff to look at this work with spatial justice as the grounding premise. This framework focuses on reclaiming our rights to be, thrive, express, and connect in space. It acknowledges how social injustices so often play out in space, tracing all the way back to the foundational spatial injustices of this country: those of colonial settlers stealing land from Indigenous nations and stealing African people from their own lands to enslave them here.  

As we enter yet another moment of aggressive place-breaking, we believe it is critical to examine the role of atmosphere and our use of counter-atmosphere as a tool for spatial justice and public-making. To this end, we must assume that atmospheres are never neutral. Whether it is the violent atmosphere created by armed white vigilantes or the idyllic vibe of a “New England-y” town common, atmospheres are actors in spatial justice and injustice.  

We want to collectively explore both short- and long-term strategies: 

  1. In the moment, how can a lens of spatial justice and an awareness of what Roberto Bedoya called “civic trauma inform how cities and towns address the pain, protest, and unrest in their streets? We need to help our municipalities think beyond their yearning for calm and equip them to create opportunities for a broader range of expressions of emotion

  2. In the long term, how can our collective investment in spatial justice and vibrant public life build the relationships, capacity, and imagination for communities to hold space for public reckoning, collective healing, and social change? And how can we shape our physical spaces to hold such opportunities in public? 

This work requires all of us. It requires you, the municipal staff person who works in a mostly white town with co-workers who don’t understand why you keep talking about racism. It requires you, the civic artist fired up about creating spaces that foster dialogue and empathy. It requires you, the urban planner who is trying to radically address the mundane injustices embedded in permitting, ordinances. and policies. 

It requires us all to see spatial justice as something we work toward every day, but also as something we drop our daily work for when acts of spatial injustice and place-breaking call for action. When that happens, we must lean into the relationships and knowledge we’ve built through the mundane, and call upon each other to step out bravely into our towns, cities, and neighborhoods. We must speak up and enact ways to formally and informally, physically and socially, visually and sonically, virtually and literally, make sure that all people are welcome in our communities. In the face of both subtle and virulent spatial injustice, welcoming is a radical act.  

To take a deeper dive into spatial justice, check out resources from the series here and videos of each conversation below. 

Part I: What is Spatial Justice? Principles of Planning for Welcoming Public Spaces

August 18, 2020 

What is spatial justice, and how can cities and towns use this framework to rethink how their built environment supports people’s rights to be, thrive, express and connect? What role can artists and public art play in helping us imagine and shape more inclusive, thriving public spaces throughout Greater Boston? Featuring a lively discussion among artists, activists, and urbanists who are leading the conversation about spatial justice in our region today. 


Part II: Making It Public: Activating Spaces for Creativity, Connection, and Celebration

August 25, 2020 

How can public-making—the collective creation and activation of public spaces for interaction and belonging—be a radical, joyful tool for spatial justice? Artists, activists, and community leaders discuss how public-making can create opportunities for interaction, laughter, dialogue, and surprise, and explore real-life examples of public-making that you can bring to your community. 


Part III: Public Works: Planning and Designing Public Spaces for Spatial Justice

September 1, 2020 

Not all public spaces are created equal. Transformative planning and urban design begin with addressing historic and current experiences of racism and exclusion. But what does that mean in practice? Creative community leaders discuss it means to design for spatial justice. We explored how skate parks, sidewalk kitchens, and “dance courts” can change how public space is used, who feels welcome in it, and how inclusive creative placemaking can help lead the way toward lasting spatial justice.