Precarious lives, practices and spaces: an investigation into homelessness and alternative uses of public space
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The aim of this doctoral thesis is to investigate the practices of rough sleeping and inhabiting public space, with a focus on the modern city of Rome. By inhabiting public spaces, people who are homeless expose their private sphere to public view. Paradoxically, this public exposure of the private becomes a means of exclusion according to Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou (2013). Scholars acknowledge public space as constructed by the actions that people carry out in public (Lefebvre 1991; Tschumi 1996; Harvey 2012; Jon Goodbun et al. 2014). People who are homeless certainly contribute to the construction of public space (Petty 2016). However, as asserted by architectural scholar Gill Doron, certain practices “reveal how the public space is restricted to a very small spectrum of activities, and how many other activities are not permitted” (Doron 2000, p.254). These practices put into question what public these spaces are designed and designated for, questioning why only some activities are regarded as public and why some others take place only at night when spaces are temporary urban voids. Rough sleeping in Rome takes place mostly at night, exposing the city to its own fragilities and contradictions. Public space emerges as precarious. It is defned by social and cultural boundaries, within which urban practices alternate one with the other. These are irreconcilable poles within a parallax gap (Žižek 2009). The theoretical scaffolding of the thesis is structured alongside two other transgressive case studies: Pussy Riot's occupation in Moscow and my interviews with parkour practitioners. These cases have been investigated in comparison with homelessness in order to highlight aspects concerning occupation of space as a performative action under precarious circumstances (precarity). The literary review is combined with auto-ethnographical studies I conducted with a community of rough sleepers, comprising 20-40 members who inhabit a portico area nearby St Peter's Square in Rome. I also ran focus groups, individual interviews and project presentations to people who either are involved in charitable bodies that deal with homelessness or are part of the general public, such as passers-by in St Peter's Square. This study has revealed a series of aspects concerning the negotiation of public space and the role of agency and mediation. This study has stimulated questions concerning the role design can play in discourses of social innovation and inclusion. The research conducted has also outlined diffculties concerning the range of data and the possible response to the many voices heard. How can design re-imagine the centre ground between alternative practices in space? By highlighting the centre as precarious, is it possible to fnd a way of re-thinking the centre? On the basis of this study, the aim of the research has been to look at the state of the gap between these alternative poles, investigating and exploring the concept of precarity. This suggests the possibility of redefning concepts of mediation, social inclusion and architectural activism, articulated further through a series of speculative projects, concluding with the presentation of a “precarious” object I designed together with the community of rough sleepers in St Peter's Square and COTRAD onlus (a charitable body based in Rome).