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la società contemporanea / Re-thinking the quality of public space (I)

Re-thinking the quality of public space (I)

Letteria G. Fassari, Martina Löw, Gioia Pompili e Emanuela Spanò
p. 7-11

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1The many crises we have witnessed in recent decades, such as the financial and ecological crises, mass migration, and more recently the corona pandemic and the tragedy of war, all indicate that the social changes we are observing do not follow a linear pattern but are the result of inherent tensions which produce contrasting or overlapping spatial effects. Tendencies to transgress national boundaries in trade, tourism or electronic communications are, for instance, contrasted by tendencies towards closure and new localistic pressures, re-bordering practices, and privatisation measures of all kinds (Knoblauch et al., 2021). In an attempt to understand the spatial transformations in contemporary society, Knoblauch and Löw (2020) draw on Norbert Elias’s notion of figuration (Elias, 1978), expanding it to introduce their concept of refiguration. According to these scholars, refiguration is an intrinsically relational term focusing on the interdependence of structures, levels and actions, maintaining the perspective on both macro and micro levels, as well as on systemic and subjective dimensions; it is the contacts, tensions and conflicts between the different spatial figuration – network, place, territorial and trajectorial space – that characterise the changes in quality of social processes and relations (Löw, 2023).

2Within this framework, we wanted to focus on the quality of public space to understand the spatial transformations in contemporary society through the analytical lens of refiguration. The perspective is primarily that of cultural and spatial sociology to problematise the normative twist caused by at least two decades of neoliberal rhetoric. In the recent past, the debate on the quality of public space used to be approached from the extensive literature on gentrification and suburbanisation. We have witnessed a political and economic change in city governance methods (Harvey, 1989) centred on a ‘managerial’ approach to urban governance. This change owes much of its theoretical framework to theories specific to economic sciences and the affirmation of private management’s mythical figure as a social prototype of financial success. By introducing rules defining the objectives to be achieved, the key indicators to read the systems’ functioning were efficiency and effectiveness, and again, monitoring and evaluation through indicators. In this framework, controlling, preventing and repressing urban degradation has become an imperative of urban policies pursued through the adoption of controversial legal and security approaches (e.g. the Broken Windows theory, Quality-of-life policing, rules on anti-social behaviour and urban decoration). These approaches have been criticised from various points of view, both by researchers and activists, highlighting the dynamics of social exclusion, marginalisation and securitisation that they trigger and the processes of urban gentrification, tourism and financial valorisation accompanying them.

3Carmona (2010) suggests that much of the literature on public space has become too polarised in the contrast between undermanaged and overmanaged space. The former defines the results of abandonment by institutions unable to counteract impoverishment and degradation, and the latter is defined as branded, privatised, spectacularised and fictionalised.

4Our point is that in both cases, the literature has focused on prescription and, in many cases, legitimate criticism, leaving less space for the refiguration of public space as an analytical tool to understand the dynamics of change. In the overmanaged and undermanaged versions, less centrality has often been given to the spatial practices that are constantly negotiated in the field. We have focused too much on the professional action of planning, politics and economics, even legitimately to counter them, leaving in the background everyday life, imaginaries, practices, and, in general, the micro-creativity generated beyond the public/private binomial.

5Here, we do not intend to minimise the significant role assumed by this literature of criticism and denunciation of the logic of domination. However, we pose the question of the quality of public space as an open question to bring out daily experiments, innovations from above and from the margins, the re-significations and practices of use and design and reconversion of spaces. In short, practices that generate public space even in contexts where the overmanaged and undermanaged predominate.

6Our perspective is culturally spatial and aims to rethink public space considering the complexity of the polycontexturalisation (Knoblauch, 2021) of space, the implication of which is that actions are increasingly embedded in multiple contexts and spatialities and emphasise not only the plurality but also the materiality of the arrangements.

7Considering what has been said so far, in March 2022, we asked: ‘for which sociological question is quality the answer?’ in an international workshop jointly organised with the Collaborative Research Center ‘Re-figuration of space’ at the Technische Universität Berlin, hosted by the Department of Social and Economical Science (Disse) Sapienza.

8During the workshop and from the contributions collected in this special issue, a richer albeit partial response on quality emerged that is more independent of the polarisation highlighted above. Quality emerges above all as a relational concept associated with spatial analytical categories such as distal or proximal, positional, figurations and atmospheres more than as a dimension measurable through a set of indicators.

9A sociological understanding of quality should basically conceptualise it in the plural. As emerges from the papers presented here, qualities are multiple and, not infrequently, come into tension, so we are ever in the presence of conflicting logics that involve dilemmas or negotiations. When speaking of quality in the singular, it is only under the assumption that we are generalising about a heterogeneous context of qualitative expressions permeated by ambivalent and contradictory dynamics. The quality of public space is produced by crossings between different dimensions and spatialisations. This leads us to the conclusion that sociological theory on quality should be centred on the interdependence between qualities, the density of their connections, the presence of redundant textures and the ability to generate organisational autonomy.

10A relevant implication in this regard is that such complexity requires the mobilisation of subjectivation resources increasingly necessary to produce quality of space. It requires a singular effort on the side of synthesis operations (Löw, 2008). As we know, the resources of subjectivation are not equally distributed; therefore, the singularised quality is combined virtuously with the possibility of being ‘sustainable’ for individuals and collectives (affordability).

11Another consideration arises from overcoming a spatial quality that does not include non-human or post-anthropocentric elements; all qualities emerge as relations between subjects and objects and are intrinsic to inter-subject and inter-object relations (Latour, 2012). The quality we are referring to is that of the hybrid. The quality of the hybrid is liminal, unstable and, above all, undefinable in the light of binary categories. It also emerges from disciplinary boundaries, producing spatiality linked to the affective, imaginative and technological dimension.

12Quality in a sociological sense emerges first and foremost from communicative actions, including practices. Practices that do not derive linearly from the institutional actions undertaken to increase the quality of space directly but instead are structurally implicated with it. It is more of an indirect, generative quality of space, therefore not an output but rather a sufficiently structured condition to support the systemic request for more agency (Amin, Thrift, 2016; Fassari, 2023). With a striking phrase, quality, from a sociological point of view, lies in the possibility of producing quality.

13Pausing at the level of action, what also emerges is a mainly affirmative quality that renounces the reiterative practice of unmasking the logic of domination but seeks to find innovative solutions beyond what is perceived as unjust, unequal and unacceptable. It is a generative quality of collective action that takes shape through social action in the creative and collaborative direction of re-signifying and activating places. It seems to be closely associated with the concept of care (Pulcini, 2009), and with mobilising feelings and memories. We could say it is a quality as the collective care of places.

14In conclusion, the recent sociological research on the quality of public space presented in this special issue focuses on use/desire/understanding in everyday life, which is gendered, class-structured and bound by racism but also by subjectivation. It does not have a simple, ostensive definition; rather it is still knowable through its correlatives. As we see in the papers, it builds a new glossary more connected to the great umbrella of sustainability: care, hybrid, generative, singularised, liminal and connected. The glossary already intercepted by the various theoretical sociological turns – spatial, performative, affective – in this issue of the journal draws interpretative relevance from the practices of refiguration of public space.

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Amin A., Thrift N. (2016), Seeing like a city, Cambridge, Polity.

Carmona M. (2010), Contemporary public space: Critique and classification, part one: Critique, «Journal of Urban Design», 15, 1, pp. 123-148.

Elias N. (1978), The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, Translation from German by Edmund Jephcott of Über den Prozeβ der Zivilisation. Soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen, vol. 1, Oxford, Blackwell-New York, Urizen Books.

Fassari L.G. (2023), Placing performance into a distressed space: The case of San Berillo, in Bartmanski D., Füller E., Hoerning J., Weidenhaus G. (eds.), Considering Space. A Critical Concept for the Social Sciences, London, Routledge, pp. 256-269.

Harvey D. (1989), From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism, «Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography», 71, 1, pp. 3-17.

Knoblauch H., Löw M., Stollmann J., Weidenhaus G. (eds.) (2021), Polycontexturalization: A Spatial Phenomenon, Special Issue, «»,

Knoblauch H. (2021), Contexts, Contextures and the Polycontexturalization of Control Rooms, «», 13 Ausgabe 1,

Knoblauch H., Löw M. (2020), The Re-Figuration of Spaces and Refigured Modernity – Concept and Diagnosis, «Historical Social Research», 45, 2, pp. 263-292.

Latour B. (2012), We have never been modern, Harvard, Harvard University Press.

Löw M. (2008), The Constitution of Space: The Structuration of Spaces Through the Simultaneity of Effect and Perception, «European Journal of Social Theory», 11, 1, pp. 25-49.

Löw M. (2023), Understanding Social Change. Refiguration, in Bartmanski D., Füller E., Hoerning J., Weidenhaus G. (eds.), Considering Space. A Critical Concept for the Social Sciences, London, Routledge, pp. 19-33.

Pulcini E. (2009), La cura del mondo: paura e responsabilità nell’età globale, Milano, Bollati Boringhieri.

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Notizia bibliografica

Letteria G. Fassari, Martina Löw, Gioia Pompili e Emanuela Spanò, «Re-thinking the quality of public space (I)»Quaderni di Sociologia, 91 - LXVII | 2023, 7-11.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Letteria G. Fassari, Martina Löw, Gioia Pompili e Emanuela Spanò, «Re-thinking the quality of public space (I)»Quaderni di Sociologia [Online], 91 - LXVII | 2023, online dal 01 avril 2024, consultato il 21 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Letteria G. Fassari

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Martina Löw

Gioia Pompili

Emanuela Spanò

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