Chris Green: Whose Streets? Populism and Urban Space

The call-and-response chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!”, while certainly predating the Occupy movement, has nevertheless appeared to reach a level of ubiquity with its emergence. By no means limited to Occupy, it certainly appears to be a common refrain on most demonstrations, and yet it does have a certain reflexivity with the movement. This is perhaps unsurprising, as although any attempt to generalize on a phenomenon as varied and at times abstract as Occupy is potentially misguided, there has been a reasonably clear articulation of a sense of reclamation of urban space in the rhetoric and practices of the movement. The two things contained within this phrase which strike me as interesting are both the use of the streets as an object of political attention, and the sense of unity and ownership. Occupy is by no means the first social movement to both articulate and express itself through the spaces in which those making demands live and work, but what warrants further attention is the way in which it directly challenges preconceptions of urban space at a time of economic crisis, when there are clearly other forces attempting to do the same.

When groups talk of reclaiming the streets, there are clearly two identifications at work: with an object that is at least partially territorially defined, and with an excluded, marginalized group as a whole. This raises the question of whether one identification is primary, and is then disrupted by the development of the other, or whether both identifications form part of a whole. On the latter, the question is simply whether the formation of an identification with an urban space is reached through an already felt socio-economic or class identity, or if the processes of development of both identifications cannot meaningfully be separated.

If we took the discourse of reclamation of urban space at face value, as implying an actual lost or ignored ownership, it would be easy to dismiss with a purely legal, material conception of urban space. There is clearly something more at play. What this narrow, legal definition of urban space as property misses is precisely that our understanding of the city is constructed from direct human experience with it, an engagement which is both constituted by, and itself constitutes, the identifications necessary for a movement like Occupy to develop from.

In what ways can we think about urban space? Henri Lefebvre distinguishes between three conceptions of space: a material space which has been transformed by the actions of generations of humans, a physical history of labour; a social space of institutions, laws and conventions; and a mental space of the constructed representations of the people within it1. If we use this model, the idea of ownership defined by law clearly relies on the primacy of social space in our conception of the city. Every inch of our urban landscapes, from roads to buildings to parks, is clearly owned in a purely legal sense; but this is not to say that the city cannot be equally felt to belong to those whose labour constantly reshapes and reproduces it, and whose identities are formed only with reference to the structures of the space they live in.

Oxford itself is an obvious example of multiple layers of ownership, belonging and perception of the city existing within the same material space. The institutions, conventions and rules of the University and its distinct points of architectural reference coincide with a mental representation of the city that is demarcated along the lines of the division of labour within it. These fall between the University, its employees and students; a tourist industry that sells and reproduces a certain history of the city; and businesses that either rely on the above or exist despite them. Interestingly, Oxford has an additional explicit temporal division of the city space: the peculiarity of the University calendar further contributes to this differentiated experience between inhabitants. What is implicit in the ‘town and gown’ cliché is that multiple social and mental spaces can occur symmetrically within the same geographical and material space of the city, and overlapping the more direct spatial segregation of communities within the city on socio-economic lines.

It is precisely here that the street acquires its emotive weight: what is a central location for the lived experience of an individual or group within a city is simultaneously merely a pathway for others. Roads that people live on are roads that others simply drive through to get elsewhere, or to simply get to the city from one of the nearby satellite towns. These multiple experienced spaces of the city alienate and devalue one another. This alienation can manifest itself politically, and often in a reactionary or violent manner, when groups are formed, sometimes spontaneously, by these antagonisms within urban space.

Here we can return to the question of identifications with urban space, and whether they are prior to, or develop through, the constitution of a marginalised group who consider themselves as such. Ernesto Laclau argues that populism cannot be seen as the ideology or mobilisation of an already constituted group, but as a way of constituting the very unity of the group itself. Laclau identifies the category of social demand as important in this formation of the people. Using the example of recent agrarian migrants to a city who demand a higher level of social housing, he states that if the institutional system is unable or unwilling to satisfy their demand, over time it will begin to be seen in equivalence with other localised demands, such as better access to education and healthcare. The two resultant developments are an increased perception of the interconnectedness of demands, and an antagonistic distance between ‘the people’ and the institutional system that fails to meet their needs2.

This understanding of populism has a clear parallel with the rhetoric of Occupy, which has displayed a tendency towards formulating an equivalential articulation of demands and experiences. However, what is clear is that function of equivalence within the context of the city is severely distorted by the different functioning levels of space and the experiences of them. While social demands of individuals can feasibly become attached to each other in this equivalential way, the structures of urban space clearly create differentiated groups. This interaction between difference and equivalence was illustrated in the apparently spontaneous mass clean-up efforts immediately after the riots in cities England in August 20113. While the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan prompted an outburst of action resulting in mass property damage, this in itself sparked a temporary civic counter-movement in the form of voluntary road-sweeping and repair work. In both instances a distinct event acted as the point around which a temporary social unity was constructed along a particular felt equivalence, in this case, the protection of small, independent businesses (and an often barely concealed moral superiority)4.

Both the riots and the clean-up response, however, can be seen as simultaneous articulations of equivalence and difference, a declaration of the unity of a sectional part of a city in opposition to an other. While the formation of the other may be seen as essential for this form of identification to work, the already existing differentiating structures of the city interfere with this process, aiding the articulations of antagonisms between one urban group and another, and not towards the more genuinely oppressive institutions and practices that can be located within the legal apparatuses of the city. The different layers of social and mental space and time experienced within the city, and the geographical division of work and residential zones on socio-economic lines, work to undermine the ability to form the type of populist identities needed to enact social change in the way Occupy has attempted. The situatedness of individuals within this divided social space already constitutes them as a subject before this process of equivalential identification occurs, precisely because individual experience of urban space is already differentiated. The equivalential rhetoric of Occupy, best expressed in the now ubiquitous ‘99%’ theme, was arguably too vague to subsume more specific, localised and immediate demands.

An effect of this seemingly necessary lack of specificity in the language of reclamation is the flexibility of the terms and concepts in use. English Heritage, a well-known Government quango, has a campaign entitled ‘Save Our Streets’, which is mostly concerned with reducing the number of ‘superfluous’ road signs in towns and villages5. While seemingly a harmless, if rather pedantic endeavour, what is clear is that the attempt to constitute the ‘our’ in ‘our streets’ varies significantly depending on the power or class relations from which it is articulated. The ‘our streets’ of English Heritage and of the post-riot clean-up, not only have a distinct class character (the protection and maintenance of petit-bourgeois business districts), but are articulated with a sense of unity with the institutional establishment. When a group like English Heritage uses a phrase like our streets, the attempt is clearly to present and consolidate the interests of a particular group in society as universal concerns, even if these worries are not voiced by those immediately affected. The construction of the Bodleian’s Storage Facility in Swindon avoided drawing the ire of those concerned with the architectural integrity of a city many of whom don’t live in, let alone need to locate books in. Similarly, Occupy St Paul’s protesters were demonised by some for interfering with the tourism industry in London. The implication is clear: a particular interest of a section of society relating to an urban space is presented as a representation of the interests of the city as a whole.

The challenge for social movements like Occupy is to dispute the narrow, legal conception of ownership of urban spaces which constructs a felt idea of the city which reifies and reproduces unequal relations of power. While the city can provide public amenities such as parks, libraries and swimming pools, this process is linked to its role as mediator between localised social forces: access to these public spaces can be, and increasingly is, restricted or denied as and when city institutions require it. Recent reactions of state and city institutions towards challenges to the status quo in urban spaces have been definitive and symbolic. The criminalisation of squatting in the UK while empty buildings become an increasingly common sight on city streets is a clear example of the maintenance of the ideological foundations of urban space, as was the violent and brazen eviction of Zuccotti Park in New York City. Expressions of working-class and community creativity towards the city are at best co-opted and more usually suppressed. Frustration and alienation within urban life becomes distorted and misplaced, with groups, communities, or postcodes blaming each other for the problems they all share. The important point to stress is that all our conceptions of urban space, the architecture of a city, its institutions, and our own mental representations of it, are the result of a lived experience, what Lefebvre calls a physical history of labour, and that this cannot be reduced to the interests or ownership of a particular section of the urban population. Regardless of whose name is on the forms, most football fans are under no illusion as to who their club really belongs to, and would think that the owners would do well to keep this in mind. When challenges to urban space visibly side with business, finance, or any other exclusionary group, a space for rearticulating concepts of ownership arises and must be taken. A good place to start is a reminder of exactly whose streets they are.

Chris Green is studying for a M. Phil. in Politics at St Anne’s College.

1 Henri Lefebvre (2003), “Space and the State”, in Brenner et al., The State/Space Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, p.84.
2 Ernesto Laclau (2008), On Populist Reason, London: Verso, pp. 72-74.
4 “This shows we will not let these criminals beat us…we will not surrender our streets to these mindless morons.” Enfield Council Cabinet Member for The Environment, quoted ibid.


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