The End of Public Space?People's Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy

Don Mitchell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The nature of public space in contemporary society is changing. This paper uses the turmoil over People's Park in Berkeley, California, as a means for exploring changing ideas about and practices in public space. I argue that as public space is increasingly privatized or otherwise brought under greater control, possibilities for democratic action are minimized. To make this claim, I provide a brief outline of the roots of the August 1991 riots at People's Park. I then examine the role that public space plays in modern democracies, and how ideas about public space have developed dialectically with definitions of who counts as “the public.” In American democracy, “the public” is constituted by private individuals. In this paper, I suggest that the presence of homeless people in public spaces raises important contradictions at the heart of this definition of “the public.” Many commentators suggest that these contradictions have led to “the end of public space” in contemporary cities, or at the very least, the removal of its political functions to the “space” of electronic communication. I examine what this move means for democratic action in the city and show that material public spaces remain a necessity for (particularly) oppositional political movements. This returns us to People's Park, as these were precisely the issues that structured the riots in 1991. I conclude the paper with a sketch of where People's Park and the issues raised by the riots now stand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)108-133
Number of pages26
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1995
Externally publishedYes


  • democracy
  • electronic space
  • homelessness
  • People's Park
  • political representation
  • public space
  • rights
  • social movements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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