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Public Spaces and Local Democracy – CitiesSpeak

But this new front in a surging nationwide preemption battle is uniquely chilling to local democracy. Reckoning with the legacy of the Confederacy and Civil War is a critical public conversation for many Southern cities — made all the more concrete when symbols of that history sit in places of reverence in public spaces. Parks, plazas, and city halls are gathering places for recreation and for protest. They serve as physical representations of civic identity and values.

And as the culture and demographics of a city change, it is necessary to reconsider what that identify is.

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It is impossible to overstate the significance of prominent parks and plazas to the functioning of democracy in cities. Your city or town invests in city halls, parks, plazas, libraries, schools, community centers, and streetscapes because those places are a vessel for human interaction and discussion. Democracy, in fact, depends on the availability of shared, physical spaces. In a world where protests are organized on social media , people still seek a face-to-face gathering. Places like Tahrir Square became globally known because they were the physical gathering for protestors who had initially organized on-line.

Public Spaces and Local Democracy

More conflicts like this will continue to bubble up, especially as the composition of statehouses becomes less and less representative of the constituencies in big cities. Charlottesville, Virginia, is awaiting a court ruling on its ability to relocate Confederate statues, which became more urgent in the aftermath of the August white supremacist march that left one counter-protestor dead. Across the country, many other cities not subject to state preemptions removed such public displays, illustrating a widespread public sentiment in favor of reconsidering their place in public parks.

State lawmakers should reconsider a top-down approach that chills public debate. They should allow local elected leaders to be responsive to the needs and desires of their own communities. Mayors and city councilmembers are the ones who face citizens on a daily basis, who share the same streets, buses, parks, and plazas as the citizens they represent. Mayor Landrieu recently announced a community-driven process for replacing the monument to Robert E.

At the very least, state legislators should rise above petty and punitive measures that show contempt for the thoughtful and deliberate conversations cities are having about the legacies enshrined in our public places. Might it even be, for symbolically highly charged sites such as Ground Zero, nothing less than the world population?

But the relatives of the victims of the terror attacks, not without good reasons, argued that their voices should count for more in the design decisions.

Even when it comes to elected officials, the questions of authority and standing are not easily settled. For instance, should Michael Bloomberg, as mayor of New York City, have had more of a say than the governor of New York State, George Pataki, whose voice was in the end decisive for picking the master planner of the site, the architect Daniel Libeskind? One possible answer might be: a space where citizens recognize their polity and themselves as subscribing to democratic values. Greek and Roman statues are supposed to remind citizens of democratic ideals from the ancient past.

The problem is that such representations of democratic values are not equally comprehensible or, if you like, accessible. Many well-intentioned attempts to make buildings symbolic will simply not be understood at all.


Such declarations might demonstrate the hubris of the architect, but do little to influence the way a building might or might not become part of a lived political experience. The parliament building in Canberra follows a similar logic. That leaves two perhaps less obvious — but actually quite coherent — ways to understand the relationship between architecture and democracy. One amounts to an ethical and political imperative that architects should not design for authoritarian regimes.

Category: Public space

Of course, architects will always be tempted to say that they are not responsible for the context of their work. Or they might even claim that their buildings have a politically subversive effect, or that the meaning of even the seemingly most totalitarian structures can be changed and re-coded by the people themselves. One, I would say, that is precisely not set in stone; democracies do not pre-determine political meanings, but the structures they offer for the creation of meaning are also not random.

Democratic architecture provides accessible space whether public or private where citizens can freely gather, debate, and — above all — protest. What recent political events, whether the Arab Spring or social upheaval in Southern Europe, have made very clear is that even in the age of the Internet and social media, actual physical space still matters a great deal.

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What does this mean concretely? As the late French political theorist Claude Lefort always insisted, the logic of representation in a democracy is very different from that in a monarchy: the king can represent the realm without remainder; but, in a democracy, the place of power remains always empty and contested.