As Doreen Massey (2005) pointed out, space matters. Does public space still matter today? Since the early seventies, several studies have explored public space as an emerging, and in many ways innovative, universe of actors, spatiality and socio-territorial practices which invaded the public spheres of our cities (Habermas, 1979; Rossi, 2008). However, ‘public space’ may have a wide variety of interpretations which relate to a semantic overlapping between a sensitive material sphere -The Space- and an intangible metaphorical sphere -The Public- (Bianchini, 1990; Crosta, 2000; Hajer and Reijndorp, 2002; Harvey, 2006; Low and Smith, 2006; Rossi, 2008). As Crosta (2000) reveals, a new dichotomy stems from those inseparable elements of public space: material space, conceived as the product of the relationship between territory and its society, and public, conceived as the result of the relationship between a society and its country. This means that material space and public sphere become the cognitive domains and functions within which public space takes shape. From a disciplinary point of view, this duality, as Smith and Low (2006) emphasised, produced two different scientific literatures: first a series of studies, developed in the philosophical and political context, which investigates an a-spatial public sphere, while a second trend almost exclusively relates to the spatial dimension, including disciplines such as geography, urban planning and anthropology. Therefore, together with the constitutive uncertainty of the planning discipline, which has been thoroughly discussed in urban literature (Faludi, 1986; 1987), an additional uncertainty must be taken into account, proceeding from the polysemy of the term, and from the co-existence of different approaches.
From a critical reflection on the concept of public space as it is now used by urban scholars and city managers, this paper suggests that public space should not be considered a ‘product’ (defined through quantitative and objective parameters), but rather as a ‘construct’ (defined through its qualitative and relational dimension) and a ‘process’ (thus referring to the performative and deconstructional theories inspired by Jacques Derrida). Public space will therefore be related to governance effects, considering the social interactions between institutional and non-institutional actors and practices (Ferraro, 1990; Crosta, 2000). Much has been written on the role of public space in contemporary societies, and many scholars agree that today public space is a controversial and arguably critical concept. It may actually seem that even the basic idea of what is or should be ‘public’ is experiencing a deep and troublesome reconsideration, as new forms of privatisation slowly but firmly erode its fundaments. Within this conceptual framework, this paper aims to critically analyse the idea of public space which exists today, with particular attention to the idea of public space as a shopping mall. Characteristics of the Italian way of using shopping malls, and their social and spatial consequences, are investigated and analysed through a case study in Palermo.