Copenhagen’s Public Spaces: the relevance of everyday urbanism in a global context.

For a capital to stay on track in the “Premier League of Cities” several elements are necessary, but undoubtedly and as recent global events have shown us, growing with equality is key.  Whichever is the sector, from tourism to urban infrastructure, equality and enabling diversity is fundamental for successful societies.

In the recent years Denmark has been restraining or rolling back services that made the country and its cities what they are, reducing funding for higher education, limiting the amount of years of it (recently modified) and enforcing migration policies which are beyond rational and far from humanitarian.

“The homeless are people” Banner from demonstration 2019.

Beyond the influence that these policies have on human lives -which should be the first elements for policy makers to consider-, they impact the potential of Danish cities for change, innovation and development. The effects of blind market oriented policies do not only affect those who are newly arriving to the city, but also those who are and have been part of the urban fabric since ever; groups and people who have been systematically marginalized from Wonderful Copenhagen: the elderly, the unemployed, the urban poor and the homeless.

Copenhagen city in its race to the top, with ambitious architectonic planning and projections, has not addressed in an integral manner the needs of the excluded and marginalized, aiming more for an aesthetically and functional wonderful Copenhagen than a city that addresses its deficiencies.

On my research carried out in 2019, I analyzed Copenhagen’s ‘Urban Life Accounts’ and other municipal documents from 2009 to 2018, amidst the ongoing debate of the ‘zone-ban’ for people sleeping in public spaces -aimed and created initially with racial motivations against Roma people, but ending affecting the ‘local’ homeless population-. In these documents Copenhagen Municipality as a form of accountability mechanism, shows their numbers in relation to amount of events on the open air, new developments, new renovations, amounts of people walking to work or driving their bikes and surprisingly the number of privately own café chairs in their public plazas -which, by the way do not pay a permit since 2012-.

Why do I bring up the cafés with their tables and chairs in plazas? I do because they use of public spaces, where the blocking of free transit and movement for pedestrians for which the homeless and the idle have been accused historically and currently in so many cities, is bypassed by the private entrepreneur. This is not a shallow critique, but it speaks of our cities and public spaces as mercenary cities and public spaces, where the uses of space related to consumption are above others, and where drinking and espresso in Kultorvet is deemed as an act of higher priority than sleeping due to need in Købmagergade.

In a city where the debate is ongoing in relation to the effects of policies such as the zone-ban, but the focus is set in mega-projects such as ‘Copenhill’ and BIG’s ‘Hedonistic Urbanism’, it is absolutely necessary to circle back and take a minute to reconsider the micro scales of our cities, from benches in plazas to the nooks in our buildings, cities are made for people and those who depend mostly in our cities infrastructure -sanitation, rest, shelter- are being pushed away from the public spaces.

The mindless race to the top of the premier league of cities, prioritizing aesthetics and market transactions without addressing in a proper form the needs of the excluded is doomed to fail and pay in the long run the price of inequality, which builds up and breaks into a deafening scream.

State violence, direct action and the right to the city: Chile, not just the public transport.

Update: last night (October 19th) a curfew was enacted from 22:00 to 07:00. In response, many opened their doors to those who couldn’t make it on time home. The protests have spread throughout the country.

“There’s an opportunity, for those who wake up earlier, to save some money on transportation” stated Chile’s Economy Minister over a week ago, while referring to the price hike in public transportation in the capital city. Beyond, the obvious disconnection from the elites with the everyday life of citizens and the mediatic outrage this declaration caused, a series of concentrated but ‘massive’ fare evasions began the day the new price was enacted (October 6th). The direct actions were mostly led by high school students, whose solidarity towards families, friends and neighbours sparked the flame of revolt in the Metropolitan Area of Santiago.

Police forces in the main transport hub of Santiago, Estación Baquedano.

The following days as the demonstrations grew -particularly since last Monday-, policing and repression were exponentially enforced, whilst authorities questioned the motivations behind the actions undertaken by the students, in words of the vice minister of interior “If the student fare did not go up, I don’t understand why school kids are taking this as an opportunity to demonstrate, this is the not the way to show discontent”.

As the events developed, in October 18th an even higher presence of anti riot police was could be seen in different transport hubs of the city, students were shot with rubber bullets and subway stations were closed. Barricades expressing people’s discontent could be seen through the city, public spaces taken over by those tired of waiting for change. Now, there weren’t only students, but a widespread and diverse manifestation of Santiago’s population saying ‘No more abuses’.

Police agents detaining a student in a subway station.

As expected from a country with a history tainted by the blood of its own citizens, President Piñera announced last night (October 18th) a State of Emergency which limits the rights of free movement and assembly, leaving the local control to the Military, shifting the chain of command from internal security affairs (police) to a matter of national security.

Not just a hike in transport prices.

Public transport in the highly segregated Metropolitan Area of Santiago, with over 7 million people, is key in ensuring not only -of course- transportation, but in keeping on an average week day, over 2,5 million people on time to their works, where over million riders depend almost exclusively on the subway system. Here, the provision of a public service is key on keeping the cogs of the economic system greased, as no workers, no production, therefore no profit.

Price change in Santiago’s Public Transport since 2007 /

The price hike has been slow but steady since at least 2007 -as shown in the in graphic-, nonetheless, not the only obstacle limiting every day life possibilities for the working class. In a country where the minimum wage is roughly 423 USD monthly, a month of public transportation in rush hour means around 70 USD or 16.55% of that income. This is not the only daily expense, of course, taking into account that education, retirement pension and a considerable amount of health services have been privatized, housing prices are on the rise and rampant inequality is a staple of the country, the price raise is the cherry on top of a garbage smoothie, from which people have been forced to drink for too long.

The for profit mantra behind the provision of public services, has contributed to increase the inherent contradictions of capitalism in the Chilean society, a country ravaged by neoliberalism since the dictatorship. As public transport contributes to keep everything nice, tidy and on time, the hike in prices beyond a threshold has pushed people to question the logic behind it, they are not riding the subway for leisure, for a weekend scapade to the center of the city, but they use it to survive, to produce and income and to have enough money to ride again to work the coming month .

Not the first revolt.

This is not the first time Santiago is witness of civil disobedience in relation to public transportation. In August 16th and 17th of 1949, a price hike of 20 cents of a peso or a ‘chaucha’, was enough to motivate students, supported by workers and public employees to take over the streets, demonstrating against the decision.

A group of protestors tipping over a bus in Santiago in the ‘Revuelta de la Chaucha’ 1949

The demonstrations were met with police brutality, leaving around 300 wounded people and 8 deads. Even though the protest lacked the support of strong political figures at the moment, it achieved a reduction in the bus fare for students and settled the ground for the creation of the ‘Comité Unido de Obreros’ (workers union), as well as consolidating in history the power of civil disobedience.7

The Right to the City: An ongoing Struggle.

Even though rankings and articles define Chile as a strong democracy, beyond the institutional elements comprising liberal democracy, events such as these highlight the fragility of such concept. Civil disobedience in key in ensuring that our rights are respected, structural violence has been permeating our society for too long, and rage has been accumulating. Rage which has not been met with effective policies nor redistributive measures.

The decision to declare a state of emergency and leaving the military in charge, beyond recalling memories of the dictatorship, shows the lack of empathy of the ruling class with those who are crying and demanding the right to their cities, the right to enjoy their everyday life without the burden of how they will pay next month’s rent.

Again this week, students are being the ‘adults’, showing solidarity with those who struggle, showing a deeper humanity than those make the decisions and a deeper understanding of the background of these demonstrations. This is not about 30 pesos, but about the dignity of those whose backs are aching after a 45 hour work week.