Voices of Public Space: City Unsilenced

Review of City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy. Edited by Jeffrey Hou and Sabine Knierbein Routledge 2017. ISBN 9781138125810

City Unsilenced is an outstanding textbook of approaches for students interested in examining these and further cases. Across 18 diverse chapters on cases ranging from Hong Kong’s Occupy movement to the creation of Syrian migrant reception centres in the train stations of cities such as Vienna, to struggles for housing rights in Spain and against gentrification in San Francisco, Occupy Wall Street and Istanbul’s Occupy Gezi Park, Jeffrey Hou and Sabine Knierbeine’s 2017 collection City Unsilenced Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy chronicles the importance of urban public spaces to the organization of political protest. The book is strategic rather than encyclopedic in its geography or historical survey: some other famous recent protests mentioned only in passing in this book include the Buenos Aires’ Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

This collection brings together examples as evidence of Hage’s (2012) position that protests as diverse as occupations, or squatting, or alternative festivals, are not an ‘anti-politics’ but an ‘alter-politics.‘ It makes an important contribution by exposing these spaces as essential to not only political protest but a shows how city squares and streets that allow mass assemblies are a central cultural technology of liberal democracy. Knierbeine and Hou argue that the separation of public and private spheres has legitimized the limits of the Welfare State by consigning poverty and concealing the inequity and violence of the private sphere (p.233). Urban public spaces are not merely containers or even locally-specific sites of resistance to, for example, neoliberalism, but have allowed a spatial mediation of tensions between liberalism (law, rights, liberty) and democracy (popular sovereignty, identity between governed and governing, equality (see Mouffe 2000:2-3)). Lebuhn adds that urban these spaces have also served a mediating role in national debate on and resistance against transnational neoliberal economic pressures on local economies, quality of life and cultural traditions.

In what must become be a key diagram for this field, Sabine Knierbein and Angelika Gabauer place the public space of resistance as the central pivot and locus of social fusion: “public space is where multiple concerns, frustrations, and motivations for change meet—a crossroads …of polítical mobilization, where those disadvantaged by one dimension of neoliberal capitalism meet those hit by another.” (Kneirbine and Gabauer in Hou and Kneirbein p.238).

I would add that, in the case of proliferating music festivals, operas and stadia and even standardized art galleries to host blockbuster, themed exhibitions of historical artists and art movements public spaces have diversified from civic plazas, pedestrian districts and boulevards and processional routes, or from market squares and halls to themed urban districts such as Montréal’s Quartier Internationale du Spectacle that includes a gallery, convention centre, tourist amenities such as hotels, squares and a consciously designed ‘Montreal space’ that involves a carefully crafted image and streetscape of aligned street furnishings and equipment (eg. Lighting fixtures, waste containers etc) and smoothed building surfaces that are the consumption spaces and mediators for contemporary global city life and entertainment. Free common goods such as the life of squares is conjoined with restaurant patios and consumption-as-diversion packaged by global café chains; the freely accessible neighbourhood ice rink or soccer pitch is conjoined with the pricey entertainment of commercial sports that require stadiums and arenas.

Public space is a basic semantic and syntactic element of cities. As such, the street, intersection and square are the equivalent of materialist media studies of ‘cultural techiques’ (kulturtechniken – see Siegert 2011) of basic elements such as lists and inventories. They are mobilized by protest and resistance movements to give the ‘urban subaltern’ a voice.

The contributors show how these physical spaces link ‘politics’ with ‘the political.’ This book allows us to remember an early sociological insight that while most writers emphasize ‘the body,’ it is the assemblage of multiple ‘bodies’ into a social mass that is key. The assembly of bodies is as relevant to right wing movements as much as to progressive forces. Since the publication of this book, American’s have witnessed the impact of right wing assemblies and clashes on politics. These events become referents for political discourse and are used as symbols within political rhetoric and media representations of political options.

Tahrir Sq Cairo-Rob Shields CCNC 2018
Tahrir Square, Cairo (2018), has been so cut up by roadways that it would be almost impossible to use the space as a gathering place (Photo: Rob Shields CCNC 2018).

Topology, Tactic or Strategy?

This collection marks a distinctly different approach from De Certeau (1984), who identified protests in public spaces as ‘tactical’ occupations of spaces formed ‘strategically’ by the state or capital. These strategies appear functional in the sense of need for security. Or, they are presented as an aesthetic strategy and technology in that they glorify institutions by creating a civic space around parliaments or palaces or they monumentalize historical events. Instead urban public spaces, as a range of spatial cultural techniques, need to be understood as topologies of social and political interaction. As others point out, they are sites of ‘counter-power’ rooted in the assembly and mobilities of bodies. Bayat argues that this is what makes public space is a basic institution in democracies (1997).

This anthology is timely in that it allows one to gather insights to help make sense of multiple shifts in the use of space or, the public mobilization of private space in, for example, Caserolazo. In Ch. 5, ‘Urban Resistance and Its Expression in Public Space; New Demands and Shared Meanings in Argentina’ Rosa and Vidosa explain this innovation of the Argentine Piqaderos movement in the 1990s (p.60). In Montréal in the 2000s, the coordinated nightly banging of pots was also used as a form of generalized protest and support for explicit resistance that may have been suppressed. What is more stereotypical of the private sphere than the equipment of domestic kitchens? The role of sound, of noise, is central to this elision of the public and private. Noise travels, creating a new acoustic topology that undoes the conventional separations of public and private at a specific time to disrupt the spatialisation of the urban and its politics by making a new all-inclusive space even if only for a moment. It provides a clanging ‘voice’, a counter-power and alter-politics that imposes itself on politics as usual (Benasayag & Sztulwark 2006). Garcia-Lamarca and the other contributors are:

“concerned with ways through which such silence has been dispelled, by seeing and using the city and public space as a site of resistance and a catalyst for political change, where people bang their pots and pans, use goggles, umbrellas, and flowers to disrupt political silence and renew – a democracy in which “the spaces of democracy (spaces of the practice of democracy) and the democracy of space (democratic relations in production of space)” are inherently related.”

This is the kind of book that inspires me to teach in urban studies.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)


Bayat, A. (1997) Street politics: Poor people’s movement in Iran. University Press, New York.

Benasayag, M., & Sztulwark, D. (2006). De la Contrepouvoir. Paris: LA Decouverte.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hage, G. (2012). “Critical Anthropological Thought and Radical Politcal Imaginary Today.” Critique of Anthropology 32 (3): 285–308.

Mouffe, C. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.

Siegert, Bernhard 2011. ‘The Map Is the Territory.’ Radical Philosophy 169, 13-16.