5.3 Cities as communicative spaces
Robert Park’s work is just one example of a broader emphasis on the role of media – news media and popular culture – in mediating the relationship between urban space and concerted public action. Mediated communications play different roles in the emergence of public life: they make available substantive topics as public issues; and they provide opportunities for the performance and representation of styles of identity and identification.
There is certainly a long-standing tradition of presenting urban space as the privileged stage for the formation of publics. In geography and urban studies, the emphasis tends to be on the spectacular dramaturgy of street protest and confrontational forms of mobilisation. Examples might include the pro-democracy campaigns staged in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, or the protests held in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011. This tradition succeeds in foregrounding the importance of claims-making as an important dimension of political contention. However, there is a recurrent tendency in such work to overestimate the degree to which city spaces are effective communicative spaces for political action (see Barnett, 2008).
Once we recognise that the city is a site where mediated communicative practices are particularly concentrated, then our sense of the role of urban spaces in the development of concerted public action should be freed from a focus on dramatic urban events like protests in the street or the occupation of public squares or public buildings.
Understandings of urban space as a communicative arena lead us to think of the city as serving multiple purposes in the recognition of consequences and interests through which issues emerge as matters of shared concern. Rather than focusing only on how people interact in face-to-face situations – in coffee shops, on the streets or as participants in protests – we can see urban life as a context in which all sorts of opportunities for communication present themselves to people. As the urban theorist Gary Bridge (2005, p. 95) remarks, our notions of the public ‘have been focused too much on the need for acknowledgement in public, in the open spaces of co-presence, rather than in the myriad ways that people are mediated by objects and systems of communication and the potential for publicity in them’.