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Public space and the cohesion-contestation spectrum


Year published: 2023
Categories: Journal Article
URL Link: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-022-10817-y

Author / Authors:

  • Rawhani, C.
  • Middelmann, T.


GeoJournal (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-022-10817-y


The urban policy assumption of public space’s generative capacity for cohesion stands out as limited in the face of the reality of South African urban public space. Drawing on observations and experiences in a range of Johannesburg public spaces, we critique the assumption contained in international, national, and local South African urban policies about cohesive public space. We argue that assuming the agency of people as tending towards cohesion and that the agency of space is enough to ensure this because it is necessarily similarly cohesive, is incorrect. Likewise, assuming the primacy of the agency of space is misleading. This dichotomy of relationships focussing on space as cohesive, and people as influenced by space, requires a third element. That third element is understanding space as an amplifier of the norms people chose or appear forced to practice which exist beyond public space. This imparts the necessity of acknowledging the existence of contestation and conflict alongside cohesion and collaboration in public space, and allows for a more accurate and subsequently more effective understanding of public space, particularly in the post-segregation context. Along this vein we propose approaching public spaces through an appreciation for their complex multiple simultaneous realities, including cohesion, collaboration, tension, contestation, and even conflict as a few examples. Without seeking to imply a dichotomous categorisation, we call this approach the cohesion-contestation spectrum.


  • Journal Article