Our Public Spaces Are Being Stolen

In addition to travel arrangements, equipment transport, documentary planning and public art installation logistics, I found myself in a two-year struggle with numerous municipal bureaucracies to secure my public art project’s simple, temporary public space request. It was an illuminating education about how our public spaces are managed.

Since Dialogue is only meant to inspire and bring people together, I expected it would be met with open arms by city officials. Most city charters promote impressive mission statements about supporting the arts, freedom of expression and advancing culture. But many bureaucrats greet public art projects and grass-roots organizers with overwhelming, circular, unresponsive bureaucracy.

It turns out that many of our most valuable public spaces are controlled by one or two individuals in a city parks department or special events office. These managers wield ultimate, often arbitrary, power to approve or deny any public space use request. The result are local fiefdoms antithetical to fair access and the mission statements these public servants have been entrusted to manage.

Understaffed permit departments, lack of oversight, pressure from business interests and little public domain guidance all combine to create this atmosphere of exclusion. Our parks and public space managers are simply not equipped to fulfill their duties, so declining a special use request becomes the easiest option. An absence of community support, insufficient funding and lack of vision also add to this dilemma.

Though American democracy promotes “freedom of expression,” regular citizens are effectively blocked from creative and free speech public space uses unless they have considerable financial or political influence. What does this say about our social priorities and community values?

The crux of this problem is a complicated, expensive and inefficient permit process. Ideally, this process would efficiently manage multiple public use requests while maintaining safety.

Unfortunately, it has evolved to block grassroots citizen uses while allowing large corporations and connected insiders easy access. Along with a range of suppressive tactics and bureaucratic barriers, denying individuals equal access to public spaces signals the slow decay of citizen rights.

As the Bill of Rights recognizes, assembling, speaking publicly, and petitioning are all required for a democratic society. However, the First Amendment protects only some of the vital political and cultural roles that free use of public space can play.

Anti-free speech campaigns have successfully silenced many groups by discouraging them with convoluted permit processes and unconstitutional regulations. Creative, artistic use of public space is practically nonexistent in many communities due to this nullifying bureaucracy.

Today, various government and business interests are actively creating “privacy zones” inside public spaces. They are succeeding because they can more easily command money, power, and legal representation than the “general public,” or an individual taking a stand against this government “Goliath.”

The result of this inequity is that vital public spaces (especially in high-value real estate areas like New York) have become all but privatized. Unlike large organizations with million-dollar liability policies and powerful lobbying groups, individuals have little or no access to political or artistic freedom in public spaces.

Opposition groups, nascent movements, students, artists and all citizens need safe, free public space in which to communicate and develop. Planned events, spontaneous gatherings and ongoing meeting places that are autonomous from entrenched government and corporate interests are vital to a free public speech. The health and well-being of a true democracy requires free access to open public forums.

Too often though, corporate greed, privileged access and, in some cases, outright privatization have squeezed out individual freedom of expression and political action.

We need better public space management to continue fostering our democracy. This means removing stifling public permit regulations for artists, political gatherings, cultural organizations and other community groups and streamlining the permit process for those few events that require special handling.

It’s time we dedicate ourselves to creating dynamic, free, thought-provoking public parks and town squares. Local governments, business improvement districts and parks departments need to prioritize and balance public use that truly serves communities at all levels.

Mike Garibaldi Frick, is the creative and guiding force behind the inspirational public art movement, EvolveArts—his life’s work and ongoing creative vehicle. In 1990 Mike formed EvolveArts to bring provocative social art out of galleries and museums and into open, public spaces for everyone to enjoy and interpret.

Today, EvolveArts has become a varied artistic force in itself — providing an interactive arts forum on the Internet, publishing unique/inspiring art books, producing entertaining documentaries and presenting thought provoking art to millions in busy metropolitan areas and via mass media.

EvolveArts creative projects are designed to catalyze action, rekindle human connection and stimulate thoughtful and positive attention on important social issues by weaving together art, politics and media in constructive forums.

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