Ben Bartosik

04. Privatopia

A brief history of self-interest.

Originally written for The Whale, a substack by the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition.


I talk quite a bit about the importance of public space, having written about it both here. and in other places. It’s a cause I have come to slowly over the years, being radicalized to it via navigating sidewalks in the winter1, trying to teach my kids to ride their bikes in car-centric communities, walking designated trail systems for fresh air and exercise, visiting libraries, and increasingly coming to an awareness of just how much we need these places in our communities. They connect us — to each other and to the natural world. And really, most people love the public places in their cities. The problem is that we have a pesky tendency to take them for granted until they are gone.

The unfortunate truth is that our public spaces are always at risk. They are too often neglected, underfunded, misunderstood, and perennially scrutinized by the envious gaze of profit-driven desire.

If we want to stand up for the public spaces in our cities, we need to understand what exactly is happening to them. It is a multi-front battle, and incredibly difficult to keep our eyes on all the ways we can lose. Budget cuts to libraries or park maintenance, infrastructure changes that make our streets increasingly hostile for kids, accessibility issues, policy changes, gentrification, surveillance, and of course, the unyielding creeping threat of private alternatives.

And that’s what I’d like to think about here today: the decline of public space. But I want to get there in a bit of a roundabout way by exploring the way our relationship to the private sphere has evolved. This is by no means an exhaustive history; I'm just pulling on a particular thread to see what we might untangle.

Hannah Arendt and Modern Society

Perhaps a good place to start when thinking about both the public and the private is through the work of the 20th C political theorist, Hannah Arendt. In her work on the Human Condition, she traces a sort of history of both of these spheres and how the modern age essentially collapsed both of them in on each other to create a new social realm. She looks all the way back to ancient Greece, where these two realms fulfilled a very distinct role in the ordering of society.

The private realm, for the ancient Greeks, was the household and concerned itself with activities related to the necessities of life — things like eating and sleeping — basically, survival. It was ordered through hierarchy, inequality, and brutality, wherein the male head of the household acted as an absolute ruler over everyone else who lived there. For this ancient worldview, the head of the household had achieved mastery over those activities of survival by delegating them to those under his control (wife, children, slaves). This freed him to participate in the public realm, a space of freedom and equality where real politics took place through debate and persuasion.2

What I want to draw out here is that a private life, according to this ancient Greek worldview, was not a good thing. A private life was seen as a deprived life, the sort shared by barbarians and slaves, and to a lesser extent, Greek women and children. It meant lacking the rights, freedoms, and status that citizens had. This is a pretty big difference from how we understand the role of the private in our current context.

So what happened?

Well, for one, during the Romantic period, the private realm became entangled with the concept of personal intimacy, ie., the “affairs of the human heart.” This included our relationships with one another. It also took on the much more individualized meaning that we are more familiar with today. Rather than being seen as being deprived, a private life began to represent status and freedom. This is where we can begin to trace the value of personal privacy in modern society.

Second, according to Arendt, the coming of the modern age brought about a collapse of the clear separations between the public and private realms, where the activities of each were sort of pulled into one another. The lines between the two became blurred, and what were previously private, those household concerns (the necessities of survival), became public (political) concerns. Arendt describes the emergence of this modern society as a sort of “collective housekeeping,” obsessed with protecting personal (private) interests.3

Sound familiar?

Okay, so let’s get back to public space and how private interest threatens it.

Arendt uses this great metaphor, describing life in the public realm as a table that both gathers us together and yet separates us, preventing us from “falling over each other.” For Arendt, this is the key role that the public realm plays. It gives us a common space to come together, yet it is guided by certain norms and rules that keep our individual rights and freedoms intact. To say it another way, the table unites us but lets us retain our unique perspectives.

Public space matters because it is not held captive by private interests. It is where we learn how to coexist with one another across our differences without losing what makes us different.

“Public spaces enable people to encounter those they would not normally come across and transform ‘others’ into individuals who are recognized and engaged in social interaction and political activities. Contact with other people increases flexibility of thinking and results in a more vibrant and democratic public culture that recognizes differences and enhances people’s sense of place, belonging, and inclusion.” - Setha Low, Why Public Space Matters

Something I've been reading and writing a bit about recently is the way the automotive industry spent decades of lobbying in order to change our relationship to the street. What I want to note here is that they fundamentally redefined a core public space in our cities by leveraging private interests such as safety and convenience. It’s a perfect example of private interests being pulled into the public realm.

This threat of privatization extends to all of our public spaces and services. Everything from libraries to healthcare to education to parks is at risk from private alternatives or concerns that promote convenience, speed, or perceived safety. And of course, as always, it is our most vulnerable populations who bear the heaviest burden of these risks. Those who depend on public spaces for their wellbeing – unhoused folks, refugees, the elderly, and children – will suffer the most.

Public spaces matter because they are meant to be equitable in a way that private options never can be because private options will always be driven by private interest. And private interest is primarily concerned with itself. This tension is at the core of our fight for public space because it requires us to think beyond our own self-interest and consider the needs of others, regardless of how different they may be from our own. It’s also why we keep losing, because it is so very difficult to ask people to act against their own self-interest.

All we can do is remind ourselves of what is at stake if we lose all our public spaces. What will society become when it has entirely been given over to the whims of private interest? And how long will those interests align with our own?