Tracing publics in urban spaces: an experience of an urban walking tour

By Katharina Prielinger

Publics are not that easy to find and observe, since they aren’t just “out there”, but emerge and form against issues, controversies and conflicts. In the course “Engaging with diverse publics” offered by Pouya Sepehr in summer semester 2022, we dealt with diverse forms of publics. As the American philosopher John Dewey noted in 1927, the public is not a static entity that simply exists or is out there. It is always forming itself anew and is in a constant state of flux, its existence always fleeting (Dewey 1927). Deviating from STS approaches for studying the emergence of publics I encountered in the first Semester of the STS Master, (controversies, issues or conflicts), I would like to focus on public spaces and places. I want to explore the question of how space making matters for the emergence of publics by focusing on materiality in urban contexts. I shift the focus from the more specific publics (e. g. publics that emerge around issues) that are, in my perception, mostly positioned in discourses, to the public sphere and the way it is built and shaped by subjects and allows them to exist, interact and come together. Since the lockdowns of the past years, I have been confronted with differences among the ways people can access spaces have become more obvious: Some might buy an island for their friends and family, while others need to share a room with their siblings for home schooling. While public spaces may appear accessible for all, I argue that the way they are designed often keeps certain people out and invites others in.

To address the question of how space making matters for the emergence of publics, I will consider insights from the walking tour “The Invisible Smart City” organized by the Whoosh collective and led by Eugene Quinn. We wandered around the 2nd district in Vienna starting from the Krieau station of the U2 Metro line through the residential area of Viertel Zwei, the campus of the University of Economics Vienna (WU), and the Prater. We returned to the inner city passing through  Praterstern and Vorgartenstraße, finishing at the Karmelitermarkt. We would stroll from one of these stops to the next, observe them, and listen to Eugene’s commentary. The initial focus of the walking tour was to reflect on different kinds of “smartness”[1] in Vienna. The walk touched on many interesting topics and gave us room to contemplate aspects we considered “smart” about the places we were visiting. For example, we discussed how the social democrat approach to urban planning in the red Vienna period from 1919 to 1934 ensured affordable housing. We also talked about how the celebrity architect Zaha Hadid had designed the library at WU Campus (the famous space-ship).

Although the walk focused on the multiple meanings and ways to encounter “smartness” in Vienna, it instead sparked my interest in how publics relate to urban spaces. Unfortunately, the walk itself was not long enough to deepen and discuss my observations concerning the emergence of publics in space (making). So, instead of exploring the initial “smartness”-topic of the walk, I use our course’s joint reflections as a starting point for my own observations.  In what follows, I discuss how the encounters from this walk inform my perspective of how the emergence of different publics might be facilitated by the various places we have visited.

Viertel Zwei

The Area of Viertel Zwei is a space of strategic city development (in contrast to historically grown quarters). Visitors encounter a rather open space with a fountain surrounded by buildings with glass facades where young (white) families and manufactured nature in the form of plant arrangements shape the picture. The real estate advertisements for this place mainly present its buildings, barely showing the inhabitants of the “green oasis” (

Analog to humans, nature will not only emerge where it is expected but it seeps through cracks and takes up space.

I did not really experience this place as an oasis. Walking the paved sidewalk, I had the feeling that despite the advertisement highlighting the greenery, it is only allowed in a highly manufactured way. Trees and grass seemed to have their designated places where they fulfilled a decorative function, almost like house plants. So, greenery in the form of unstructured and unplanned nature supposedly does not fit into the way Viertel Zwei’s urban planning is imagined.

Still, I noticed some grass peeking through the gaps between cobblestones, like small green rebels. I consider the way nature is enacted in this place – that is through the meticulous curation and regulation of plants – as analogous to the way I see it capable of shaping publics: It seemed to me that the public as well is highly selected in this area. I imagine this to be the case because although the space is supposedly open, it is still enclosed by tall buildings that block our view to the outside. These buildings were constructed for people who can afford a certain standard of living, allowing them to stay among themselves in this highly organized quarter. Everything is clean and tidy; nothing is left to chance. What seemed modern and progressive at first glance felt rather dull in this moment.

Modern, colorful, political: These benches are the modern, funky version of the armrests you would see put on benches in the inner districts

In congruence with the high standard of living advertised by Viertel Zwei, residents hold higher academic degrees than the residents of other areas of the 2nd district (Social space Monitoring of the AK 34, p. 15-20). While this area does offer plenty of possibilities to relax, many of them are only for temporary use. Their hostile design intends to keep homeless people from sleeping and spending time in these spaces (see also hostile vienna Instagram account), hence keeping them from the public that I see forming here. In general, the area of Viertel Zwei does not offer many elements (e. g. benches, swings, plants) that one could interact or engage with. The lack of flexible, adaptable design elements that can be used and appropriated by inhabitants in diverse, creative ways could be read as a suggestion that, in an area where most residents live in apartments big enough for individual design and decoration, such planning interventions are generally unnecessary.


The Praterstern is marked by transportation systems – the people here are passing by rather than lingering around. At least the most visible groups are people in cars and people on bikes. At the center of the huge roundabout of cars and bikes lies the U-Bahn and S-Bahn Station of Praterstern. Prior to the alcohol ban for the area around this public transport station, you would also see and notice the traces of club kids and party-goers this area, as well as homeless people. But now this already rather invisible public has been pushed to other corners of the city.


In conclusion, it seems that the rather abstract concepts of publics can still be seen and investigated when searching and interacting with concrete objects such as benches and spaces. It also appears to me that sometimes structural dimensions governing the use of spaces such as drinking bans and the imagination of territorial inhabitants (whether wealthy families or academics) shape the way spaces look and feel and appear to manifest in the ways spaces are designed. Stepping outside the classroom and searching for the traces of publics has made the theoretical considerations discussed in the course tangible; it has become easier to relate them to the way I experience urban spaces in Vienna. The walk and my research about the Naschmarkt/Markthalle/Naschmarktpark-Controversy in Viennas 4th district has deepened my insight into publics, spaces and their interactions.

Finally, with regards to my initial question of how to trace different publics in space, my conclusion reflects the (in)visibilities detected during the urban walk tour. On the one hand, being a member of the Viennese public is about visibility and participation to me. Wherever we encounter spaces that allow different groups of people (rich, poor, residents, visitors, men, women, different migration biographies,…) to be visible, we can see different forms of publics emerging and interacting. On the other hand, we should also pay attention to how material elements (including the use of urban technology) condition space and make certain groups of people invisible or displaced. In my eyes, a smart city (as the walk tried to show) is not primarily a top-down concept of “modern” buildings, smart technologies and organized nature; but rather a place where different people form different publics and claim and shape their spaces.

[1] The concept of smartness seemed to be rather unprecise. Back in the seminar, most of my colleagues reflected on the different ideas of smartness and how the concept of smart cities could be many things: including technologies in citizens daily life as well as providing functioning infrastructure for public transportation.


Dewey, J. (2012 [1927]). Search for the public. In The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry (pp. 59-85). Pennsylvania State University Press

Marres, N., & Lezaun, J. (2011). Materials and devices of the public: An introduction. Economy and Society, 40(4), 489–509.

Katharina Prielinger has been a student in the STS-Masters programme since Wintersemester 2021, after doing her BAs in Sociology and Political Science at the University of Vienna. She is interested in the intersections of urban spaces, politics and social justice as well as the different (interdisciplinary) ways STS might go.