Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Office of Public Space

My Kafkaesque search for the municipal office dedicated to Public Space came to an exhausting end. I had finally found the correct man, in the correct office, on the correct floor, in the correct administrative building. After another thwarted attempt due to closures around lunch time, (it is very typical for offices to shut between 12:00-2:00pm here), I landed an interview with Architect Fabian Valencia. Armed with my Ecuadorian constitution and penal code, we started talking about the “appropriate uses” of public space. His office is in charge of granting permits for such gatherings as concerts or rallies in the plazas. What surprised me most about our interview was that Valencia and his co-worker kept insisting that the municipal government is the ultimate owner of Quito’s public space. They repeatedly used the word “owner,” to emphasize that any activities occurring in public had to be approved by the city. I thought it was an interesting choice of word. I would have expected them to say that the city is in charge of “regulating” the public sphere or something along those lines. To say that the city rather than the citizens “own” public space brings up other issues of freedom and the rights of citizenship. When they told me once again, “Anita, the city owns all public space in Quito” I decided to whip out the constitution. Specifically, I turned to Article 23 under Section 4a, in Chapter 2: “Rights to a good life” where it says that “every individual has the right to access and participate in public spaces as places of liberation, cultural exchange, social cohesion and the promotion of equality” (16). It goes on to say that everyone has the right to “broadcast their own cultural expressions in public space (17).”

Valencia and his team nodded and agreed with Article 23, that individuals should “feel free” in public space, etc. We both agreed that the constitution (and not just Ecuador’s), uses broad terms to be as inclusive as possible, but that the on-the-ground reality of rule-making is very different. For example, I have recently collected all of the municipal ordinances that apply to Quito’s public space. There are close to 80 of them, all of which regulate public space in very specific ways. For any lawyers out there: Is that the “strategy” of most constitutions, to use broad and progressive language which will represent or reflect the country’s overall ideals but then the actual nuts and bolts of rule-making happens on the city level (in Ecuador’s case)? I’d love any comments on this…My other goal is to find a piece of legislation that might mention that the municipal government as the official “owner” of public space. Perhaps this was just an off-the-cuff comment from my architect friends at the Office of Public Space…. Even if I can’t find it in the books, it’s still relevant that they said it: I take it as a juicy piece of data.

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