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Our public spaces, or more specifically our cities, are a reflection of human nature and are the embodiment of modern civilisation. As Park (1967) states, ‘The city … is something more than a congeries of individual men and of social conveniences, … institutions and administrative devices. The city is, rather, a state of mind, a body of customs and traditions’ – ‘it is a product of nature, particularly human nature’.

In this essay, I will discuss how the ‘right to the city’, and how it is developed, is limited to the elite members of society, excluding the public from public space. Dealing primarily with western cities, and specifically the American city, I will address how economic, political, cultural and social factors influence and dictate how public space is used and accessed by distinct groups. Throughout this essay I will use Chicago as the main reference city to illustrate the key ideas and concepts.

Urbanisation and Capitalism

Though cities are a product of human nature, ‘cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product’ (Harvey 2008), and so urbanisation is intrinsically linked to capitalist and political power. The surplus product from capitalism must be absorbed, and the development, or redevelopment, of an urban centre is one way this can be achieved.

Harvey (2008) examines this concept in more detail. The city of Paris was completely redesigned in 1850’s due to a huge capital surplus and high labour unemployment. Haussmann, who led the development, decided to widen the streets by three times the suggested amount to achieve his vision for Paris as it became ‘the city of light’. This changed the social fabric of the city, encouraging tourism and bringing about new cafes, hotels and events. However the speculative financial system that this was based crashed in 1868, and Haussmann was forced from power. As an early example of urbanisation, this shows how economic and political power drive the development process, and paradoxically can bring it to a halt.

After World War II, New York and other American metropolitan centres underwent a similar transformation to Paris in order to absorb the capital surplus. This, in turn, resulted in the growth of suburbanisation in cities where new middle class homeowners led a consumerist lifestyle. However minorities and low-income groups ‘were denied access to the new prosperity’ (Harvey 2008). This ‘modernist’ solution brought about the deterioration of inner cities, which necessitated large-scale urban renewal such as the projects led by Robert Moses in New York (Harvey 1991). Again, a financial crash in the 1970’s brought the urban process to a standstill. There are striking parallels between this and the economic crash of 2008 onwards brought about by sub-prime lending.

Urban Development

In this post-war era, speculative property development was ‘a major branch of capital accumulation’ and mass production techniques enabled rapid large scale urban renewal. Despite state planning regulations, corporate interests drove the urban design agenda and enabled the construction of ‘monuments that soared ever higher as symbols of corporate power’ such as the Chicago Tribune building (Harvey 1991).

The development of the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in Chicago is another good example of how capitalism shapes the city skyline. Built in 1973, Sears Tower was the largest building in the world until 1998 and is still the second tallest in the United States. The tower, commissioned by Sears Roebuck & Co. – the largest retailer in the world at the time, was built so high as to accommodate all of their employees in one central location. Despite complaints and law suits filed by Chicago residents to halt construction, development went ahead as the courts found that they didn’t have a right to uninterrupted television reception – an issue caused by the tower. Other notable skyscrapers in Chicago are the John Hancock Centre, the Aon Centre and Trump Tower – all of which were commissioned by individual corporate entities.

Willis Tower in the Chicago Skyline

In her ‘attack on current city planning and rebuilding’, Jane Jacobs (1961) argues that the modernist urbanisation process has resulted in a ‘Great Blight of Dullness’ in American cities. The main target of her ire are city developers who move, expropriate and uproot residents and businesses ‘as if they were the subjects of a conquering power’.

She advocates diversity in urban design, but notes that there are market forces at work that inhibit our natural tendency for diversification. As discussed, mass production, which leads to conformity, was necessary to quickly rebuild the cities after the war, however this demonstrates that corporate interests have been the driving force behind American urban development since the mid-20th century.

Corporate Influence in the City

Corporate sponsorship of sports stadiums is prevalent in the US and has spread to other countries (e.g. the Aviva stadium in Dublin, the Emirates stadium in London). In Chicago, the home of the White Sox is U.S. Cellular Field, and the home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks is the United Centre, named after the sponsor United Airlines. While these are obvious examples of corporate influence, the historic Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, is an interesting case. In many ways it is no different, the chewing gum manufacturer renamed the venue from Weeghman Park to the company name in 1926. However, nearly a century later and Wrigley Field has become synonymous with Chicago and is an iconic landmark in the city, and isn’t considered in the same category as the examples above.

There is also another notable exception to this trend in Chicago – Soldier Field. The NFL stadium was named Soldier Field as a tribute to veterans of World War 1 in the 1920s. There was a possibility that the naming rights would be sold when the stadium was redeveloped at the turn of the century, however after the 9/11 attacks Chicago Mayor Richard Daley insisted that ‘the stadium will always be known as Soldier’s Field. That is dedicated to the veterans here in Chicago. It will always be that’ (Rosner and Shropshire, 2011). It seems that the only resistance to corporate influence is when there is political pressure to preserve those parts of the city with cultural significance.

The resurgence of liberal economic policies has further increased the class divide between rich and poor. This is manifesting in the form and appearance of our public spaces, as Harvey (2008) notes – ’the results are indelibly etched into the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly become cities of … privatized public spaces kept under constant surveillance’.

The Pritzker Music Pavilion in Chicago is a standout example of the ‘economic elite shaping cities after their own desires’. The outdoor music venue, in the centre of the city, was being redeveloped as part of the development of Millennium Park at the turn of the century. However, the prominent Pritzker family, owners of Hyatt Hotels, intervened in the modest plans and insisted that acclaimed architect Frank Gehry should take over the design. In the end, they funded $15 million of the cost of the development to realise their vision of the venue. The pavilion highlights postmodern design principles, as Jameson (1991) notes ‘postmodernism, I think, went on to abolish something even more fundamental, namely, the distinction between the inside and the outside’.

Pritzker Music Pavilion, Chicago

In another example of private interests conflicting with public space, Chicago businessman, Richard Driehaus, bought a property that is on the National Register of Historic Places, funded a complex restoration project and renamed it the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. It now displays his own private collection of antiques and he has described it as his ‘gift to the city’ (Sharoff 2007). In addition he has made large donations to DePaul University where the business school was renamed after him. Whether this is altruism or egotism is open to debate, however it demonstrates that the elite hold the keys to at least some parts of the city.

Public Space as a Socio-Political Concern

Harvey (2008) states, the right to the city is ‘far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire.’

As Jencks points out in The Language of Postmodern Architecture (1977), the multivalency of postmodern planning is enabled by technological advances, which is in contrast to the univalent approach of modernist architecture. Advanced modelling techniques allow us to move away from mass production to create greater diversity in building design, and transportation and communication technologies allow urban developments to be more ‘dispersed, decentralised and deconcentrated’ than ever before (Harvey 1991). Developing urban space in a way that conveys the unique values and culture of the many different distinct groups within a city helps to bring the public closer to public space. In this way, postmodern design is making the urban environment much more accessible when compared with modernism.

Despite this, Jencks cautions that market forces remain at the core of postmodern urban design, and ‘although this carries the danger of pandering to the rich it is a situation that the architect is powerless to change’ (Harvey 1991). This is where political interests must intervene in order to protect low income and other disadvantaged groups. As Harvey continues – ‘the problems of minorities get swept under the rug unless some democratic community based planning can meet the needs of the rich and poor alike‘.

The Social Impact of Urban Expansion

Discussing the rise and expansion of large cities Burgess (1967) cites C.B. Fawcett; ‘At the present day there are from thirty to forty of them each containing more than a million people, whereas only a hundred years ago there were … not more than two or three’. He argues that this phenomena is of huge importance and brings with it new economic, social and geographical problems for governments.

Burgess (1967) introduced a model that illustrates how different zones within a city are formed and changed over time. A key characteristic of the typical American city is the centralisation of amenities in the downtown area. ‘We expect to find the department stores, the skyscraper office buildings, the railroad stations, the great hotels, the theaters, the art museum, and the city hall. Quite naturally, almost inevitably, the economic, cultural, and political life centers here’. It follows that making the central district of the city accessible to minority groups should be a primary political concern as it is so significant in city life.

In addition to this, smaller commercial areas have popped up in outlying zones, leading to greater diversity and choice for the inhabitants of zones II to V. This ‘centralised decentralisation’ (Burgess 1967) means that citizens do not have to rely solely on access to the CBD and so it alters their daily routines in the time and space of the city (Harvey 1991).

Burgess’ theoretical model of the city (below), based on Chicago, illustrates the urban process of expansion. In it, the city is divided into different zones radiating from the central business district, each with a distinct demographic. As the city expands, each inner zone consumes its outward neighbour and alters the social fabric of that part of the city. ‘In the expansion of the city a process of distribution takes place which sifts and sorts and relocates individuals and groups by residence and occupation’ (Burgess 1967). As we have seen, this process is fuelled by capitalism which ordinary residents are usually powerless to stop. Only legislation and regulations can curtail the relentless spread of urbanisation.

For example, Grant Park in Chicago is located in the CBD and spreads over 319 acres. There is legislation in place to restrict planning in the park, which famously lead to Aaron Montgomery Ward taking legal action against the city of Chicago to force it to remove buildings. This demonstrates that access to public space is a cause that the public need to support, and where possible have written in law.

(Burgess 1967)

Of course Chicago, or any other city, doesn’t fit this model exactly – ‘complications are introduced by the lakefront, the Chicago River, railroad lines, historical factors in the location of industry, the relative degree of the resistance of communities to invasion, etc.’ (Burgess 1967). However it is useful to convey a generalised composition and layout of a city and how it changes over time.

The ‘metropolitan area’ of a city often overruns its political limits, and even state lines in the case of Chicago. The term has come to mean the geographical extent of a city’s transportation system ‘that enables a business man to live in a suburb of Chicago, and to work in the loop’ (Burgess 1967). This further enables the idealised middle-income suburban living which is at the core of ‘the American dream’. Indeed the public transport system is essential to the workings of the modern city, and democratises access to the city where otherwise residents would need private transport.

As cities are home to people of varying incomes, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs and identities, they tend to group together in certain areas based on one or more factors. ‘This differentiation into natural economic and cultural groupings gives form and character to the city. For segregation offers the group, and thereby the individuals who compose the group, a place and a role in the total organization of city life’ (Burgess 1967). It results in distinct areas such as Chinatown, Little Italy and LGBT districts forming where the inhabitants feel at home and can shape the environment to their needs.  

Low-income Areas

However rapid urban expansion also has negative consequences, particularly for inner city areas, such as ‘excessive increases in disease, crime, disorder, insanity, and suicide’ (Burgess 1967). This can be seen in Chicago where there have been more murders between 2003 and 2012 than American soldier deaths in Afghanistan (Thompson 2013). High crime levels in certain parts of the city lead to these becoming ‘no-go’ areas, thereby restricting access to residents and visitors.

Low income, particularly high-rise, social housing traditionally has high levels of crime, which Oscar Newman has attributed to ‘defensible space theory’ (1975). This theory states that crime rates drop when inhabitants have a sense of ownership of their residence, which usually isn’t the case of high-rise public buildings.

In the late 1980s this theory formed the backbone of the plan to desegregate social housing in Yonkers city in New York, as recounted by Belkin (2000) in Show Me A Hero. However, the suburban residents of Yonkers, mainly white middle-income, vigorously objected as the move would negatively affect their property values. This posed huge problems for the Mayor and city council who were divided on the issue.

However a seemingly positive social policy such as this can bring its own problems. Low-income housing is often located in areas with high commercial potential, and so residents are moved out to make way for new developments. This process of gentrification results in rising prices for low and middle income individuals in sought-after areas, and in effect denies them the right to the city. As Harvey (2008) comments, the problems of the ‘slums’ are not solved, just shifted elsewhere.

Social Integration

According to Harvey (1991), since the 1960’s urban spectacles, such as fairs and festivals, were used to overcome ‘the siege mentality with which the common citizenry approached downtown and its public spaces’, and ‘to celebrate the neighbourhood and ethnic diversity’. For this reason organising and promoting public events in the city is essential to promoting good social relations between the distinct groups within a city regardless of income, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

The importance of a public space such as Grant Park, introduced above, is highlighted here. The park is home to a huge number of events throughout the year including the Chicago Blues Festival, Jazz Festival, Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza. However Harvey warns that there is a tendency for these events to become less neighbourly and more commercial, again showing how economic interests are at the heart of the modern American city.

The Creative Class

For a city to thrive and grow it must attract the right people to live and work there. At the moment, that is ‘the creative class – a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend’ (Florida 2002). As we have seen, corporate interests lie at the heart of city development, and if a city can’t provide the right workforce for a company it will be left behind. As Florida continues ‘like companies, places that succeed in attracting the creative class prosper, those that fail don’t’.

The creative class tend to stick together in areas within a city, and now also move into cities with a high population of others of a similar demographic. In a way, this is no different from traditional class divisions that have separated the population by ‘income and neighbourhood,’ but it is now extended into the ‘realm of city and region’ (Florida 2002).

One of the core values that define the ‘creative class’ is diversity. As Florida notes, there is a correlation between where the creative class tend to congregate and where there is ‘acceptance of the gay community – the message being ‘non-standard people welcome here’. Members of the creative class are diverse across the dimensions of age, ethnicity, marital status, and sexual orientation’.

While most cities that attract the creative class are small or midsized, and growing, Chicago has managed to integrate them into the city culture alongside the traditional working class population. They did this by ‘treating them as just another ethnic group, that need sufficient space to express its identity’ (Florida 2002).


As we can see, capital is the lifeblood of the American city and is one of the biggest influences on how it evolves over time. ‘Quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money, as has the city itself’ (Harvey 2008). Capitalists by their nature are members of the elite, and if capitalism fuels urbanisation, it follows that cities develop in accordance with their own interests at the forefront.

However the more that the state control the capital surplus, the more control they have over the urbanisation of the city, and can advocate for social issues. If cities are to attract members of the creative class, they must support policies that accommodate minority groups and those with alternate lifestyles.


Belkin, L., 2000, Show Me A Hero, 1st ed., Back Bay Books

Burgess, E., 1967, Chapter II: The Growth of the City, An Introduction to a Research Project, IN Park, R., Burgess, E. and McKenzie, D., The City: Suggestions for Investigations of Human Behaviour in the Urban Environment, University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (May 15, 1984)

Florida, R., 2002, Rise of the Creative Class, The Washington Monthly, May 2002

Harvey, D., 1991, The Condition of Postmodernity , 1st ed., Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.

Harvey, D., 2008, The Right to the City, New Left Review (New Left Review) II (53): 23–40.

Jameson, F., 1991, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1st ed., North Carolina, Duke University Press

Jacobs, J., 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1st ed., New York, Vintage Books

Jencks, C., 1977, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 5th ed., London, Academy Editions

Newman, O., 1975, Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

Park, R., 1967, Chapter I, The City: Suggestions for Investigations of Human Behaviour in the Urban Environment IN Park, R., Burgess, E. and McKenzie, D., The City: Suggestions for Investigations of Human Behaviour in the Urban Environment, University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (May 15, 1984)

Rosner, S. and Shropshire, K., 2011, The Business of Sports, 1st ed., US, Jones and Bartlett Publishers

Sharoff, R., 2007, A Class Act, Chicago Magazine, [Online], 27th September, Available from: [Accessed 30th December 2015]

Thompson, M., 2013, Chicago Murders Top Afghanistan Death Toll, WND, [Online] 16th January, Available from:  [Accessed 28th December 2015]

Ronan Martin

Ronan Martin is a New York-based digital marketing strategist specializing in SaaS and ICT marketing. Having worked in Dublin, New York, Chicago and Sheffield, Ronan has a keen understanding of the digital business landscape in the US, Ireland and the UK.

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