Section 6: “Public” and “Private” Realms

Gay men at the beach, circa 1930. East Coast, US. Source: 2012 Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Inc. New York City.

Kurt Iveson “Putting the Public Back into Public Space” [1998]

Don Mitchell “To Go Again to Hyde Park: Public Space, Rights, & Social Justice” [2003]

Li Zhang “Contesting Crime, Order and Migrant Spaces in Beijing” [2001]

George Chauncey “Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets” [1995]

Alice T. Friedman “People Who Live in Glass Houses” [1998]

Mark Kingwell “The Prison of ‘Public Space’” [2008]

Public and private are social constructs that conceptualize different domains of everyday life— from the interiority and privacy of our bodies and homes to the publicness of city streets and public space. In common usage it refers to the degree of access granted to “outsiders,” however outsiders are defined. But despite digital privacy agreements and no-trespassing signs, the boundaries between public and private are often ill-defined and contested. Rather than existing in a binary opposition, public and private spaces operate at a variety of scales that overlap and intersect, creating a mosaic of spaces and degrees of access. Rarely is a space either public or private, but is instead multi-layered and often disputed physically and politically.

Public and private are contested realms, open to debate and intervention. In one sense, public may be addressed primarily as an issue of politics, as Jürgen Habermas (1991) and Hannah Arendt (1998) consider it in their work on the public sphere, debating who the public is and how the public expresses itself and makes its will known. Tangential to this is the question of ownership and property: who owns and determines how resources are used, and what then is truly private? Another way of thinking about public and private is through individual rights and activities. In this case, public is often used to define the spaces of approved social interaction, while private refers to personal space and intimate encounter. These understandings of public and private as psychological, social, and political processes are addressed in the following readings.

Looking at the multiple ways that the term public describes spaces and gatherings of people, geographer Kurt Iveson outlines the ways in which public space is configured and the types of interactions each model of public space supports. What he calls the ceremonial model of public space, based on traditional European plazas, is provided by the state as a place of public gathering, structured according to the rules and regulations of that state. The community model of public space fosters social relations from the ground up. The liberal model of public space advocated by Habermas (1991) guarantees equal access for all; however, the reality of such a space often results in the exclusion of those different from the group that holds power. To bring these frameworks together, Iveson argues for a multi-public model of public space, which he develops from the work of Iris Marion Young (see Section 7). A multi-public model does not establish a singular notion of public, but accommodates a variety of subcultures and groups in spaces that embrace difference.

Geographer Don Mitchell makes a compelling argument that access and the ability to inhabit public space must be understood as a “right.” Drawing upon the work of Henri Lefebvre (1968), Mitchell argues that the right to the city is one way in which the idea of the public can be tested. By examining how ideas of public and private are politicized and operate spatially, especially through his work on the regulation of homeless populations and use of public parks, Mitchell refutes the many processes of capital and rhetorics of fear that call for the privatization of public space. By centering his argument on what he calls the right to inhabit, he suggests that our ability to occupy public space—in much more diverse ways than typically imagined—is a fundamental human right, rather than a right to property.

Issues of public and private transect class, racial, and gender lines, and the forms of contestation vary from place to place. Anthropologist Li Zhang looks at Beijing, China, and the experiences of rural-to-urban migrants, their labor, and the way it is criminalized. She describes how these practices place this group outside the bounds of public space and authorized activity because of governmental interest in control. These migrants, after constructing large-scale residential complexes and economic infrastructures, find that they have no rights or ability to stave off the destruction of their homes, despite playing an important role in the local economy. Their contingent existence is regulated through what is deemed appropriate by the government, yet they continue to self-organize in their effort to be recognized.

Historian George Chauncey describes how oppression and privilege are intertwined in the way that gay men were not able to meet or create private space at the turn of the 20th century in New York City. At the same time, gay men drew upon society’s encouragement of working-class men to occupy public and semi-public spaces such as parks, docks, beaches, bath houses, and movie theaters (see figure at the beginning of Section 6). Through encounters in these spaces, gay men were able to create modes of access and to develop a culture, supporting Chauncey’s argument that, for this group, “privacy could only be had in public.” His work sparks thinking about marginalization, not only of specific groups in public space, but also of their rights to private spaces and privacy. Public and private are not equally accessible, but depend upon sexuality, gender, economic status, age, and other markers of identity and behavior.

Art historian Alice T. Friedman’s essay helps us understand how privacy is qualified and contested even in the space of the private home. Her case study is the architecturally renowned Farnsworth House which architect Mies van der Rohe designed for owner Edith Farnsworth in the 1950s. Expecting a private getaway in the country, the female owner instead found herself with glass walls and no adequate space for dressing. Friedman shows how Farnsworth was stripped of her privacy first through van der Rohe’s designs, and subsequently by the many people who came to view this famous glass house in which she sought solitude but found herself on display. Drawing on popular portrayals of women from this time through archival research, Friedman argues that because Farnsworth was an older, single woman, she was viewed by society as someone who had forfeited the full right to private space. Despite the house’s appearance of openness, Friedman shows how the design intentionally repressed this woman’s sexuality and failed to afford her space to regulate or find privacy for her body.

Hegemony often obscures or monopolizes our rights and resources, including access and use of public space. However, if people were to suppose that our spaces and actions are shared—or at least should serve the public good—it could challenge the status quo of assuming things are private and solely for our individual benefit. Mark Kingwell’s philosophical essay suggests just that: to destabilize the dominant ideology of private rights, human beings reverse our understanding of public and private. To make this case, Kingwell shows how Herman Melville’s character of Bartelby refuses to concede to the norms of capitalism dictating discrete places of work and leisure (office and home). He argues that this is a way of reclaiming territory for the public. Kingwell prompts us to ask: “Why can’t we work, play, eat, and sleep in ways that are less fixed and regulated?” In arguing against our spaces, institutions, and actions as beholden to private interests rather than public good, Kingwell suggests that if people were to turn our understanding of public and private inside out, public space would no longer be interstitial or marginal, but could occupy the center of democratic processes.

The public or private character of space is contested politically, economically, socially, psychologically, and spatially as evidenced from these readings. Since the emergence of the notion of public in ancient Greece, access and use of public space has always been limited and disputed, and there has never been a perfect model for how it should work (Brill 1989). Space is always layered in the way it is perceived and regulated, as well as in the way it is physically constructed. Literary critic Michael Warner (2002) asserts that the idea of public also accounts for publicity and publicness, arguing that multiple publics (groups and agendas) may be operating in any given place or time. For example, Erving Goffman (1959) contends with the way our personalities shift throughout our everyday spaces through the lens of class. Further, in line with the thinking of Mitchell and Kingwell, it is important to note that public means everyone has a shared interest in spaces. In this way, public relates to the concept of the commons—resources that are available to all members of a society—a framework that is contested in ancient land disputes and newer digital divides (see Blackmar 2006). Examples such as the public uprising of Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park in New York City and the “revolution” in Tahrir Square in Cairo highlight recent events in which there was a struggle for public spaces and political rights. It is also useful to consider how the body is an especially important site in debates about public and private, whether in terms described by Chauncey or Friedman, or other ways in which women and minorities are objectified, commodified, sexualized, and spatially segregated by people in power. Lastly, and most important, the idea of rights is fundamental to discussions of public and private, and these scholars demonstrate the continued need and responsibility of every person in working to establish and maintain rights and spaces that are equitable.


Arendt, Hannah. 1998. “The Public and the Private Realm.” In The Human Condition, pp. 182–230. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. 2006. “Appropriating ‘the Commons’: The Tragedy of Property Rights Discourse.” In The Politics of Public Space, edited by Setha Low and Neil Smith, pp. 49– 80. New York: Routledge.

Brill, Michael. 1989. “Transformation, Nostalgia, and Illusion in Public Life and Public Space.” In Public Places and Spaces, edited by Irwin Altman and Erwin H. Zube, pp. 7–29. New York: Springer.

Carr, Stephen, Mark Francis, Leanne G. Rivlin, and Andrew M. Stone. 1993. Public Space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Colomina, Beatriz. 1996. Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Engels, Friedrich. 2010. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. London; New York: Penguin Classics.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Iveson, Kurt. 2007. Publics and the City. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kingwell, Mark, and Patrick Turmel (eds). 2009. Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, edited by E. Kofman and E. Lebas. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Locke, John. 1980. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Low, Setha M. 2000. On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Madanipour, Ali. 2003. Public and Private Spaces of the City. New York: Routledge.

Marcuse, Peter (ed.). 2011. Searching for the Just City. New York: Routledge.

Mernissi, Fatima. 1987. Beyond the Veil: Male–Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Miller, Kristine F. 2007. Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York’s Public Spaces. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Orum, Anthony M., and Zachary P. Neal. 2009. Common Ground?: Readings and Reflections on Public Space. New York: Routledge.

Parry, Bronwyn, and Cathy Gere. 2006. “Contested Bodies: Property Models and the Commodification of Human Biological Artefacts.” Science as Culture 15(2): 139–158.

Smithsimon, Greg, and Benjamin Shepard. 2011. The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces. New York: State University of New York Press.

Warner, Michael. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

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