Quasi-Public Spaces in Graz

The city park of Graz has existed since 1868 and is one of the biggest parks in Austria. The local authorities call it the ‘green heart’ of the city and consider it an example of people’s engagement for securing and maintaining free green areas in the city. Even in the local authorities’ own information about the park, they mention a certain change in using the park in the last 15 to 20 years. The park was formerly used only for strolls through it or for visiting certain events; entering the lawn was forbidden. However, people of Graz use it nowadays for various kinds of leisure and recreational activities. The park seems to have opened up to its users’ needs and desires and has become a multifunctional local recreation area and an inner-city habitat for animals and plants. The article about the city park on the city authorities’ homepage ends with a very interesting sentence: „The city park is tested on its suitability for daily use by new contemporary needs as well as by socio-political trends and fashions now more than ever”. (translated from Wissenswertes zum Stadtpark) This ‘new contemporary needs’ and these ‘socio-political trends and fashions’ are the reasons why the ‘movement’ Occupy Stadtpark has been founded in Graz.

Obviously, Occupy Stadtpark refers to the Occupy ‘movement’ triggered by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York City. Similar to OWS, Occupy Stadtpark sees itself as ‘the people’ standing against local authorities; also their ideas are largely influenced by those of OWS: support for people not banks, tax the rich and other kinds of criticism of the government and/or local authorities. However, Occupy Stadtpark has not occupied the city park symbolically to make itself heard. Rather, it focused on the city park as an example of the local authorities’ politics; which, in its view, (over-)regulate the city park and its use in order to govern and control the people using it. This overregulation stands in total contrast to politics’ liberal understanding of economy regarding the free market. Occupy Stadtpark’s followers have realized this discrepancy and therefore fight for their right to public space; thus it strongly supports this ‘new contemporary needs’ and tries to counteract the ‘socio-political trends and fashions’ mentioned above.

Occupy Stadtpark stands for a free but conscious use of public spaces such as the city park and the main square. Free use means that there should be as little prohibitions as possible controlling people and their use of public space. Conscious use means that there is certain etiquette instead of prohibitions; for example, not interfering with other people, and damaging public property or elements. Occupy Stadtpark, thus, initiates activities such as ‘Gib mir den Rest’, picking up garbage collectively in city park.

Occupy Stadtpark exists in Graz due to the local authorities’ recent politics, turning Graz from a city of human rights (since 2001) to a city of prohibitions. Although the local authorities of Graz have insisted to consider human rights issues in all its decisions by calling itself city of human rights, they have so far banned street musicians, beggars and other socially disadvantaged groups from its public spaces by law. The law criminalizing beggars in Graz was removed by the Constitutional Court considering it a contradiction of the Human Rights Convention. Additionally, the conservative mayor of Graz has prohibited cycling, drinking alcohol as well as having a barbecue in the park. In order to enforce these rules, he has even installed an own guard fining people who misbehave in city park. In the eyes of Occupy Stadtpark, the local authorities interfere with people’s rights to the public space of ‘their’ city park. In a certain way, local authorities rather see themselves as owners of public spaces than the people paying for its maintenance. Thus local authorities turn public spaces such as the city park and the main square into private space by regulating its use highly. They decide not only about the proper use of public space but also about who are the proper users of public space. By considering the various prohibitions, it is clear that cyclist, street musicians, beggars and socially underprivileged groups in general are not desired in public spaces; thus they are no proper subjects of place. Therefore these public spaces are no longer really public. They stand between public and private spaces: they are public on the surface but private in its core as their owner, the local authorities, decides who it wants in or not. Such a space cannot be called public, only quasi-public, as numerous groups of people are deliberately excluded from using it.

The city park of Graz used to be a place for people’s leisure and recreational activities. The local authorities, however, saw it necessary to regulate its public spaces in large terms, thus also controlling people using them. In the course of the city’s politics, a group has formed in Graz calling themselves Occupy Stadtpark in reference to the Occupy ‘movement’. This group has been fighting for its right to the city park as well as for public spaces in general, which it sees injured by numerous prohibitions resolved by local authorities. Occupy Stadtpark stands against local authorities’ highly regulating politics, and argues for a free but conscious use of public space in Graz. The city park and main square cannot be called public spaces any longer as the local authorities have already privatized it by regulating it as highly, so that large parts of the population of Graz are no longer welcome there, in formerly public and now quasi-public spaces.