The Last Urban Frontier: Commodification of Public Space and the Right to the City in Insurgent Hong Kong

Projekt: Avhandling



This dissertation is centred on the commodification of public space, which broadly speaking, refers to the process in which public space is rendered a commodity through the domination of economic logic and exchange value. As a result of the expansion of neoliberal capitalism, commodification of urban space has not only exacerbated, but also become more far-reaching and indiscriminate. While the commodification of housing and the expansion of the real estate market have captured plenty of critical attention both in and out of academia, it is the commodification of urban public space, as well as its socio-spatial implications, that this dissertation is concerned with. Public space, as I set out in this dissertation, is particularly important to social advancement, and the right to access and appropriate public space constitute a crucial aspect of the right to city. In addition to reconceptualising public space commodification, I also intend to examine empirically how the process is manifested, as well as resisted, in Hong Kong, a city that is not only steeped in neoliberal ideals but has also experienced substantial deterioration in terms of democratic rights and freedoms in recent years.

The public space literature is largely focused on processes such as privatisation, commercialisation, and securitisation. While such lines of enquiry remain hugely important, it could be argued that they may no longer suffice to encapsulate the exploitative motives and practices of public space due to the growing importance of public space in urban development, as well as the increasingly complex and dynamic models of funding, ownership, and management in contemporary public space production. Rather than fixating on certain characteristics such as public ownership and commercial use of public spaces, I contend that a broadened conceptualisation of public space commodification will be key to not only unpacking its multi-scalar socio-spatial impacts, but also revealing its connection to other urban processes. Theoretically, I draw upon works from scholars in both critical urban theory and public space research such as Lefebvre, Harvey, Smith, Mitchell and Low, and it is towards these debates that I hope my research will contribute. Largely informed by a Marxist theoretical perspective, the city and urbanisation are, in my view, inherently linked to different structural processes that constitute the capitalist mode of production. The political economy angle thus underpins my conceptualisation of public space commodification, which sets out to establish the linkages between capitalist productive forces and the development and production of public space. More importantly, as Marcuse, Brenner and others have suggested, critical urban theory must also go beyond illuminating the contradictions of capitalist urbanism by pointing to alternative ways of organising social capacities and urban resources. It is therefore my intention that the dissertation will not only contribute to future urban and public space research, but also have practical and concrete consequences on public space struggles. The empirical cases are centred on three different public spaces in Hong Kong, as well as the protest sites of both the Umbrella Movement and the Anti-ELAB protest movement. I have adopted a combination of both on-site and digital ethnographic approaches. The main sources of data for this study include participant observations, interviews, documents, live stream footages and online forums. The different cases will be analysed and presented in the corresponding papers.

The dissertation is conceived as a compilation and thus consists of two main parts – a kappa, which serves to frame my research and tie the dissertation together, as well as a collection of individual papers. Among other things, I will address in the kappa my theoretical underpinnings, previous research on public space, methodological approach, and the social and political contexts in which my empirical work is set. My empirical findings are presented in four individual papers. Paper 1 provides an overview of public space developments in Hong Kong by outlining the commodification process in three different waterfront public spaces. It also illustrates the variegated nature of public space commodification and how commodification relates to other processes at work such as privatisation and commercialisation. Paper 2 is an in-depth study of the Kwun Tong Promenade in Hong Kong that demonstrates how government-driven commodification of public space has exacerbated spatial injustice and uneven development in the neighbourhood, and how members of the local community are disadvantaged as a result. Paper 3 is a socio-spatial analysis of Umbrella Square, the main protest site of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Based on Sennett’s conception of openness and porosity, I contend that the Umbrella Square is an ideal typical public space that does not only inform future public space developments, but also stimulate the insurgent use of existing urban spaces. Paper 4 looks at the protests inside shopping malls during the Anti-ELAB protest movement and contemplates whether privately-owned and managed shopping malls can become sites of emancipation, especially in times of increasingly authoritarian rule and heightening restrictions on public space use.

Amidst the various events that have taken place in Hong Kong over the course of this study, I contend that the everyday contests over public space use and development are imperative to the city’s future political struggles. It is for this reason that the dissertation started by examining the commodification of everyday public spaces in Hong Kong, and while inspirations for an alternative public space can be drawn from the sites of political struggles and contestations, it is ultimately in the spaces of everyday life where the right to the city can be formulated and enacted.
Gällande start-/slutdatum2018/09/012023/05/05