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A discussion of 'public space' often starts with the question of what the term actually means. There is no simple answer says Van Melik because the differences between public and private are vague. "Many people's reasoning is that if an area or building is privately-owned, then it is not public space. But a university or hospital is a private space and yet you can just walk straight inside. "Conversely, public space is not always public. When the famous Dutch musician André Rieu is performing on the Vrijthof in Maastricht, the city square is only accessible for people with a ticket."
We need to look for good opportunities for co-production between public and private partners
Two views of public space
The generally-accepted views of public space are diametric opposites like the two faces of the god Janus. "On the one hand there is the idyllic idea that people from all social levels can meet each other and learn from each other in the public space. Public space should therefore make us into better, more tolerant people. People also view public space as a platform for democracy and protest; anyone who objects to something, takes it to the streets. Just look at the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring." On the other hand there is the pessimistic view that we are losing more and more public space, for example to privatisation, individualisation and commercialisation.
Van Melik is not completely in agreement with either of these images. "The rose-coloured image is too rose-coloured. There is not a single public space that is completely public; there are rules everywhere. And you can very rarely speak of true meeting and interaction; instead of living together, most users of public spaces just pass each other by."
Koopgoot, private contribution to public space
Van Melik also presents a more nuanced picture of the negative image of increasing privatisation. She refers to the Beurstraverse shopping street in Rotterdam, nicknamed the Koopgoot, meaning 'shopping gutter'. According to Van Melik, it is the perfect example of how a private contribution can improve public space.
The Koopgoot has no roof or entrance, but in all other respects it is just like a covered shopping centre. "Along a 300 metre-long strip there are 60 surveillance cameras and private security guards send everyone away who doesn't stick to the rules. And yet the Koopgoot is a success. It has given a huge boost to the city centre and was the start of the revitalisation of Rotterdam. The average visitor doesn't notice all those cameras and security guards. They just come to shop."
Thanks to examples like this, Van Melik does not want to encourage black-and-white thinking in the discussion surrounding public and private. "I advocate searching for good opportunities for co-production. Particularly during an economic crisis, government needs the input of private partners. However, that input has both costs and benefits. For each initiative, we have to look at how we can reduce the costs and increase the benefits."
Van Melik's point of view is not universally shared. "For a long time we have had a domineering government in the Netherlands. In fact that was necessary during the period of rebuilding after the war. People have got it into their heads that the way public space is designed is the government's responsibility and that citizens should remain passive onlookers. Yet I do see a growth in private initiatives. Think of roundabouts that are maintained by a local gardening business. And in some municipalities such as Rotterdam, local residents are given a budget for redesigning their street, for example. Hence citizens are becoming increasingly active, but processes like this take time." /MvZ