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Shaping the city of the future: public interest

NearU

17 Jul, 2022

Cities are sources of extreme inequality especially in the bargaining forces between different stakeholders often resulting in many people left disorganised and unrepresented in urban processes. Public interest is overcoming the dominance of the powerful by bringing the needs of the unrepresented to the forefront.
As a concept, public interest can be contextualised by the birth of the Civil Rights movement which is marked by community uprising in the United States, during the 1960's, that led to the global realisation of the need for community involvement in the decisions made about the places in which we live. It resulted in the creation of Arnstein's Ladder and publication of the Skeffington Report which both assessed how the public might become more involved in the process of urban decision making.

Efforts are made to promote "fairness" and "unitary" purpose however this only creates an illusion of public interest which tends to be used in a politically convenient way, omitting any adoption of clear values or inclusive processes in order to permit discretion and room for negotiation. This undermines urban processes by allowing more powerful interests to claim 'public interest' as a defence for controversial proposals that may have otherwise benefited from public engagement.

Public interest has been challenged in view of its inability to deal with diversity effectively and respond to the increasing role of technology in the shaping of cities. This is particularly evident where the interests of the disadvantaged and unrepresented are assumed as part of urban processes. Assumptions of a unitary public interest suddenly becomes a static justification for pre-designed action to be enforced upon a place - often embodying an elitist concept of public interest.
As the use of digital space becomes more dominant in society and we begin to blend and change the way we think about physical spaces, we find public interest in need of a refresh to better align with the technological and societal shifts of today.

By acknowledging the role of the digital world on our physical future we can create a more progressive understanding of public interest beyond simply the physical parts of a city. Although consensus is often not achievable this position demands openness about the assumptions made and transparency in the design and implementation of cities.