Atlantic Cities

How Occupy Wall Street Is Reinventing Public Space

How Occupy Wall Street Is Reinventing Public Space
Reuters

Editor’s note: This post has been updated since it was first published. A line that paraphrased Sassen’s opinion on the motivations of the Occupy protesters has been removed because it mistakenly misconstrued her statements.  

To sociologist Saskia Sassen's mind, there are two types of public space. There are the parks, the beautiful piazzas where you go to see and be seen. "It civilizes conduct," she says. "It's a public space for ritual." 

And then, there are streets.

Streets are controlled by no one—easy to access, zero barriers. And, most importantly, streets offer easy, visible gathering space. "There is something about pushing the boundary of the space that is political," the Columbia University professor says. 

This is why Occupy Wall Street has had such an impact, Sassen believes. Protestors all over the world have taken over public spaces for their own use.

But she worries opportunities to use streets for protest are rapidly disappearing. "A lot of barriers are built" around government buildings and embassies, she says. "It's police thinking rather than public space thinking."

Moreover, Sassen sees a pernicious movement to privatize and control urban centers. "There is a real struggle for territory going on," she says. "Why do financial firms need so much space? Why? It's land grabs."

Governments, financial firms and multinational corporations are scooping up land in an effort to dominate the resources on it. In China, Sassen says, the government just took over 2.5 million hectares, which has forced entire villages to relocate. "In a lot of places, the country is privatized," she says. "The only place to go is the global slum."

"The whole notion of occupying – it's symbolic, but it is not completely," she says. "It has the actual real, physical moment. It connects the global street , with these massive displacements of people."

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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