Public spaces, by which I mean town squares, pedestrian streets, parks, major sidewalks, waterfronts, etc, are the anchors of urban environments. They serve a vital social function by offering a “third place” to exist in addition to the home and the workplace. Europeans, in my experience, are less obsessed with getting as much space as possible for themselves and keeping others out than we Americans are. Their ideal isn’t a two story Colonial on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, but is likelier a city apartment in a central urban area. Free from the isolating, automobile-dominated urban spaces so common in the United States, Europeans take to the streets in force. Europeans enjoy their cities’ public spaces: meet friends for a coffee, take a contemplative moment on a bench, indulge in an afternoon stroll with the whole family, window shop while busking musicians earn their spare change.
Social organizations like religious communities, political parties, and fraternal organizations are under strain from the increasing work hours and mobility of the modern economy, as well as the pull of social media and online communities. There are fewer places for modern citizens to form and feel community. Sociologists consider one of most vital elements to making new friends to be regular unplanned interactions. In the absence of physical infrastructure to facilitate this process, these interactions don’t happen. Public spaces are one of last elements of modern society that build social capital, getting people out of the house and the workplace, together in the same area. French spatial theorist and one of history’s most famous urbanists, Henri Lefebvre, wrote on public spaces:
In the street, a form of spontaneous theater, he became a spectator, and some time a actor. The street is where movement takes place, the interaction without which urban life would not exist, leaving only separation, a forced and fixed segregation. The street is a place to play and learn. The street is disorder. All the elements of urban life, which are fixed and redundant elsewhere, and free to fill the streets and through the streets flow to the centers, where they meet and interact, torn from their fixed abode.
Public spaces are also beneficial in their egalitarianism: They are open for everyone. One does not pay to relax in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. This, of course, does not minimize the issues of inequity in public spaces — in who they are built for, where are they built, etc. But, for the most part, parks and squares are enjoyed by all, without arbiters of participation.
Recent terror attacks seem to have focused on Europe’s public spaces, from the attacks this past week on Las Ramblas in Barcelona that left 14 dead to the Bastille Day truck attack on Nice waterfront that killed 84 to the truck attacks on the Christmas Market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz that killed 12. Terrorism isn’t carried out solely with the aim of maximal physical or human destruction but rather with a desire to influence the public’s behavior and instill fear in the name of a political agenda. The target, therefore, that is chosen to produce that effect matters. Attacks like the ones in Barcelona curiously don’t harm important infrastructure or expensive buildings and don’t cause significant financial damage. So why then Las Ramblas?
It’s not hard to deduce why attacks have focused on public spaces, beyond the sheer number of people to target. Terrorism is political and needs an audience for maximum effect. Europe’s public spaces are filled with diverse groups of people from all over the world, enjoying time together in a visible demonstration of fellowship. Indeed, the Catalan emergency services released the record of the countries of the victims from the terror attacks: Australia, Taiwan, Honduras, Canada, Argentina, Mauritania, Pakistan…the list covered 34 countries from every part of the world. That kind of peaceful, public diversity is anathema to the anti-pluralist worldview espoused by the Islamic State and the attackers it inspires or recruits.
The terrorists in Barcelona, for example, tried to drive their trucks through the heart of Europe’s joie de vivre derived from its public spaces. The unique thing about public spaces — whether pedestrian streets, plazas, or waterfront promenades — is that they are not flocked to because of their architectural or natural beauty. Surely, one might enjoy an afternoon alone in Rome’s Piazza Navona, for example. But the physical space is not what attracts its regular crowds. People go because others are there. Each individual’s life is made better by the presence of everyone else there, shopping, walking, sipping wine, taking photos.
Life in a bustling European public space is one of the simplest examples of what it can mean to be human — to be enriched by the existence of others and do exactly the same for them. Human beings are social creatures; we are at our best together. Public spaces are the physical infrastructure that facilitate us to be in the world together. Our public community is what these terrorists ultimately attack. They want to rob us of this collective, shared humanity in public spaces.
A major part of the ancient human transition from hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralism to “civilization” was the construction of the world’s first cities and the first physical “public” to be in; when we roamed the deserts and grasslands, there was no such thing. Public spaces — alongside the rise of agriculture with a food surplus, administrative bureaucracy, the division of labor, and a few other developments — define civilization. It’s no surprise to learn from reports that Raqqa, the capital of IS, has little street life, no common spaces to be enjoyed. The worldview of these terrorists won’t allow it. This absence of public space and public life is representative of their broader rebuke of modern civilization
What gives me hope in the face of the seemingly accelerating attacks on Europe’s so-called “soft targets” is our resilient drive to return to the places that have been attacked. Inevitably after tragic events, people come out to the streets in force — whether in Manchester, in Paris, in Nice, or in Barcelona.
After the attacks in Barcelona, the very next day, massive crowds took to the Plaça Catalunya at the entrance to Las Ramblas to honor the victims with makeshift memorials and a moment of silence. Immediately after the silence, the crowds shouted in a uniquely Barcelonan mix of Catalan and Spanish: “No tenem por,” “No tiengo miedo.” I am not afraid.
King Felipe VI and Prime Minister Rajoy, rich and poor, the Catalan separatist flag and the Spanish national flag, migrant and native, white, brown, black — all existing in public as an act of rebellion against the attacks and worldview that would drive them against each other and drive them inside.
I write these words from the window seat in a café on one of Dublin’s main pedestrian areas, Grafton Street. Within my immediate view there are four different busking groups playing instruments from saxophone to Irish fiddle. A middle aged couple walks by slowly, holding hands. Two twin boys sprint ahead at full speed in their game of tag, much to the dismay of their parents trying to keep up. Two older gentleman sip their frothy pints of Guinness outside a pub. A large group of young adult men, all dressed in soccer gear and seemingly just finished from a pick-up match, laugh as they gingerly walk by in the cold evening air. All, as human as it gets, together in public.
Jake Dow, a rising junior studying political science, is a staff writer and the interviews editor of Stanford Politics.