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UBC's Fionn Byrne on the Political Function of Open Space and Parks

Spatial justiceSpatial justice
Figure 1: Joseph Paxton’s 1847 Birkenhead Park alongside Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, of 1791.
Fionn Byrne of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Right to Land research team presented work at the most recent Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) conference in San Antonio, Texas.
The research presented turns attention to the term “open space,” which interchangeably describes a park’s physical and political condition. As a physical ideal, openness purports to create empty space within an urban fabric, facilitating airflow and sunlight penetration. As a political ideal, openness describes a universally accessible site without barriers. This paper draws attention to the ambiguity in the term “open space” and argues that the physical property of openness is not coterminous with a political ideology of openness. Ultimately, Byrne’s research suggests that “closed space” may have advantages in supporting democratic engagement and empowering oppressed groups.
Rather than supporting an expansion of the public, this work posits that openness, as an attribute of park design, functions more commonly as a tactic of pacification and exclusion via unrestricted surveillance. Notably, having a central open space establishes a hierarchy of visibility and supports the democratization of policing (Newman, 1972). Moreover, surveillance, a function of visibility, is a martial tactic of control (Foucault, 1975). Significantly, the public sphere only emerged from spaces not subject to state surveillance, such as coffee houses (Habermas, 1962). Moreover, while being observed restricts the emergence and development of political and individual differences, the possibility of anonymity supports the formation and empowerment of minority groups (Young, 1990).
Understanding that a relationship between visibility and freedom of expression exists and given the digital domain’s emergence as a democratic “town square” simultaneous with the intrusion of social networks into private space, this research speculates a shifting role for parks in a democratic society from a space of appearance (Arendt, 1958), to a space of political formation.
Follow the development of this research and more of Byrne’s research at landscape-ethics.com.
To learn more about the research site led by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, click here.