… Conflict is Cheap

Across the so-called “Global North,” civil society is rapidly approaching its breaking point. In Europe, which recently surged ahead of North America once more in the worldwide race toward self-imposed economic Armageddon, some countries may already be there. The British hate their poor, the French hate everyone else’s, the Germans hate everyone, and everyone hates the Germans. Eastern Europeans don’t even trust themselves, with support for democracy in “New Europe” declining steadily as this Long Recession drags on.  Here in the US… well, we can still show those Europeans a thing or two about loathing our fellow man (or woman).

Last week, I argued here that consensus-driven planning and designs processes are an expensive waste of time and effort for both cash-strapped municipalities and over-worked, underpaid planners and designers: participatory planning is, essentially, a mug’s game. Now, I’m complaining about the fraying fabric of civil society. Am I somehow temperamentally incapable of keeping my line straight on this important point?

Well, no. In fact, that’sthe point of last week’s argument: that participation genuinely is important, but that consensus-driven planning is ineffective and inefficient and generates an inadequate stand-in for actual participation in actual civil society. There are other arguments against participatory planning—that it enables NIMBYism, that the public don’t actually know anything about urban planning—but they’re all essentially beside-the-point. The real problem with participatory planning is that it isn’t actually a form of genuine civic participation.

The titles of these two posts—“Consensus is costly…” and “…Conflict is cheap”—make an economic argument for what’s really more a question of political philosophy. “Costly” and “cheap,” after all, aren’t synonymous with “good” and “bad.” Attempting to mitigate our carbon emissions is an expensive good idea, whereas rolling back CAFE standards is a cheap but terrible one. When it comes to designing public spaces, however, conflict is, or at least can be, both the cheaper and better alternative to a consensus-driven plan.

Occupy Philly: If the Occupiers are good for anything (and even on the political left, that’s debatable), they’ve at least reminded us of the important role public space can play in resolving socio-political conflict.

If the Occupy [Your City Here!] protests have reminded city planners and urban designers of anything, it’s hopefully that public spaces (even privately-owned public spaces) are the arenas in which social and economic conflicts play out. Radicalized workers at a protest meeting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, Boris Yeltsin and company atop a tank in front of the Russian “White House,” angry young Egyptians encamped outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo: these actors all understood that effective defiance demands a stage that only a great public space can provide. A million private conflicts are just that—private. Conflict only becomes public when it moves into the public realm, and only through the public resolution of such public conflicts is real human progress achieved. It’s no wonder why Time’s Person of the Year is “The Protester.”

Some corollaries and elucidations are of course in order. First and foremost, public space shouldn’t be designed to cause conflict, let alone to maximize it. Those who would argue (and rightly so, in my opinion) that not all conflict is bad certainly need to remain cognizant of the fact that, very clearly, not all conflict is good either. On a related note, not all conflict need be violent or defiant, either. My candid and respectful exchange of opinions with a libertarian uncle at a family barbecue is “conflict;” so is watching a hockey game alongside a friend who (I couldn’t believe it either…) roots for the New York Rangers; so is the time I split a six-pack of Yuengling with a homeless man at Philadelphia’s Race Street Pier, and listened to him talk about the kind of life I still can’t really even imagine.

Richard Sennett, a sociologist and urban theorist, has written that “Equilibrium in a social order can sacrifice dissent for the sake of harmony…. [but] ordinary experience doesn’t much register if it lacks disruptive drama.” Planners, designers, and other representatives of officialdom, Sennett argues, often try to eliminate or tuck-away disruptive activities, when they should actually be encouraging such activities, which add vigor and life to urban spaces.

In constructing his case for a more disruptive urbanism, Sennett draws on the work of Erving Goffman, a Canadian psychologist who wrote extensively on “the presentation of the self in everyday life.” Goffman emphasized the performative, theatrical aspects of ordinary human interaction. While the explicitly psychological implications of Goffman’s work may not interest city planners or urban designers, his more generalizable theories of human behavior very well may; indeed, they should.

If human beings are “actors,” then public spaces are their “stages,” and the creators of these spaces their “set designers.” The role of the set designer is not simply to design an exquisite backdrop, nor (and the metaphor makes this obvious) to seek audience input on what the stage should look like. Rather, effective set designers should enable the actors to tell the story they’re seeking to tell.

Race Street: Since the author’s oft-mentioned drinking trip to Race Street Pier, official steps have been taken to “minimize disruption”—including not only public drinking on the Pier, but also public fishing.

Last week, I asked how we should evaluate Race Street Pier, a new waterfront park tied to Philadelphia’s larger vision for the Delaware Riverfront. I think that the performative metaphor works here, as well. A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned splitting a six-pack of Yuengling (a moderately-priced Pennsylvania beer, beloved across all social and economic classes within the Keystone State, and eyed enviously by our Ohioan neighbors) with a homeless man on the Pier (the role of public drinking in fostering cross-class interaction is a favorite topic of mine, sure to be discussed on this blog sometime in the near future), and described it as a form of social conflict. And indeed, I maintain that it was: he and I had very different worldviews, and very different personal histories, and in our conversation these very much came into conflict. It wasn’t that we argued—we didn’t. We simply talked, openly and honestly, about the very different ways in which we experienced the city of Philadelphia. For me, it was an eye-opening discussion (another—stop me lest I beat a dead horse—in a series of such discussions I’ve had over beers shared in public spaces where beer is not, legally speaking, supposed to be shared); for him, probably just a chance to score some beer off of another guilty middle-class leftist.

So how does the theatrical/performative metaphor work? Well, the Pier provided a stage for our interaction, one on which we both felt comfortable. While we may have both found the conversation interesting, we were also acting out a part for the other participant: he was telling me what homelessness was like in order to score a few free drinks, and I was providing the free drinks in exchange for the sort of awesome anecdote all middle class leftists dream about mentioning in the blog. Meanwhile, we were both putting on a show for the rest of crowd out visiting the Pier.

This, then, is what public spaces are meant for—not just for public drinking, clearly, but for allowing conflict-driven performances to occur in the safety of public space. Social classes simply don’t mingle in the privacy of their own homes; they do in public space. Maximizing the conflict caused by this mingling, while minimizing the negative externalities caused by such conflict, should be the raison d’etre of any public space worth its salt.

It is well-documented that compassion for any afflicted social group increases alongside simple interaction with members of that social group. Public spaces that increase interaction—and broadly-defined “conflict”—between different social groups can thus serve not only to provide the sort of disruptive urbanism sought by ivory-tower theorists like Sennett, but also the basic compassion necessary for the maintenance of the compromises and half-measures we like to call “Society.”

Let us return, then, to the decay of civil society that I touched on at the start of this essay. How can public spaces mitigate against this, particularly in an era of austerity? First and foremost, by enabling conflict and communication between social and economic classes. As the subject of this website’s issue two, communication is essential for the process of creative design and planning: it is also the foundation for a productive, disruptive urbanism of conflict. Yet this communication—this conflict and engagement—cannot happen in the isolation of private spaces. Publically-owned, well-used spaces that allow for surprise, chance, and spontaneous interaction are pivotal for productive conflict. Public space is for productive conflict, and so-called “public spaces” that fail to recognize and privilege this simply aren’t doing what they’re supposed to.


Peter Chomko is a city planning student at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design. 

  • Discussion: (5 comments)
  • Author Comments
  • Editor Comments

  1. … Conflict is Cheap

    first of all: The problems with Zuccotti Park will be a great case study for Landscape Architect students.
    secondly: The times have changed like you mentioned. America is turning into a police state where peaceful protest is no longer tolerated. Designing a public space that is really a public, comfortable, safe space is almost impossible with all these frightening laws such as the NDAA section 1031. (not going to explain it all, search and be amazed)
    How about a public space as a political statement by declaring it as “a constitutional rights zone”. A public stage for America’s greatest traesue: The freedom of speech. This space provides places to hide against being pepper-sprayed or harmed. The “stage” has several camera’s covering the “play called democracy” from several, aesthetically chosen viewpoints. Not for safety or spying but to broadcast what happens for all the people to see. What is a play without an audience?
    I wonder what you think about such a proposal. As an European landscape architect i really think America needs such a place right now. There SHOULD be at least one place where in your country the people of America shouldn’t have to fear their country.

    Posted at 4:30 pm on
  2. … Conflict is Cheap

    Well done! It’s a great relief to me that you don’t entirely dismiss the role of participation, whether through decision-making or demonstration, and I like that you clarify that participation is a crucial and integral (also privileged, in all of its meanings) element of our society.

    I do not mean to nitpick, but I have one comment regarding voice and assumptions: Your homeless man may very well have only been interested in three free beers. From what little I know of homelessness, however, he could also have very much appreciated the conversation, engagement and curiosity you proffered, and it might have been eye-opening for him as well. I know that you are describing the incongruity of the two of you together and the sight of such a pairing in public, but to relegate his interior reality to one of helpless indulgence or addiction can deprive him of his own humanity, so that he becomes an almost cartoon-like character in service to, as you say, bolstering the street cred of someone in very different circumstances.

    Forgive me if this comes across as harsh, but I mean only, if not so gently, to point out that when we talk about others, and particularly when we talk about others less fortunate than ourselves or who have vastly different backgrounds, that to find the tenor that portrays the story accurately can be tricky, but can also be elucidating for both the writer and the reader. A value like this may go against the rush of snappy blog writing, but sometimes that stream needs to be interrupted and toed nimbly.

    Posted at 3:22 pm on
    • … Conflict is Cheap

      Eliza: Re-reading the piece now, it does seem a bit glib, and I think your criticism is (more than) fair. I think it’s reasonable for me (as a writer) to blame that on what you called “the rush of snappy blog writing,” but I also feel a bit bad about it as an individual, and I’m glad you pointed it out. There are about 25 different kinds of nuance that are very easily lost when I’m not describing the incident personally that I should’ve been cognizant of whilst writing the piece. That I wasn’t is my fault entirely, and I’m sorry that it took your catching me out to bring it to my attention. It’s easy, but also fairly reprehensible, to use real people as writing props and plot devices.

      Moving on from that, yes, I do think that – broadly defined – “participation” is an important ingredient in society (full stop). I do think that planners and policymakers and other well-meaning folks have tended to privilege participatory process over a more general culture of egalitarian participation in society as a whole, but that’s another, rather complicated, story.

      Posted at 3:46 pm on
      • … Conflict is Cheap

        Peter: I appreciate your response, thank you. Yes, nuance can be difficult of capture; I’m sure that the experience was loaded with innumerable subtexts that to describe would be a post unto itself. I also want to acknowledge that engaging him was an act of courage on your part and that writing too is an act of bravery, or should be, and I commend you for both.

        I hope this week is sweet with gentle “conflict” and, perhaps even, uproarious participation. :)

        Posted at 3:55 pm on
  3. Pingback: rewriting the rulebook | Landscape Urbanism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *