Atlantic Cities

What Makes a Public Space Good for Democracy?

What Makes a Public Space Good for Democracy?
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Political protest in the past few years has famously moved online. You can build a movement on Facebook, organize it with Foursquare and document it on Instagram. Many academics and media commentators fell in love with the idea of whole social revolutions powered by Twitter in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring.

But all of these digital tools still have not sidelined one of the most basic needs of democracy: actual, physical public space. Sure, angry young Egyptians organized themselves with smart phones and cell signals in January of last year. But they still needed Tahrir Square.

Political scientist John Parkinson, based at the University of Warwick in the U.K., traveled to 11 national capitals across the globe to try to tease out the connections between these two tangible and abstract ideas: public space and democracy.

“What might democracy require of public space?” he asks. “Does it have physical requirements to be enacted? And how well do modern cities provide that?

His findings, published in the book Democracy and Public Space: the Physical Sites of Democratic Performance, offer a very different look at plazas and parks that we more often celebrate for their ability to host tourists, festivals and concerts, not protest. After visiting each city, with an eye toward the accessibility, size, character and security around these “democratic spaces,” Parkinson came up with this surprising ranking of the best and worst capitals to speak your truth to power:

1. Berlin, Germany
2. Wellington, New Zealand
3. Ottawa, Canada
4. Canberra, Australia 
5. Washington, DC
6. Hong Kong
7. Mexico City
8. London, England
9. Tokyo, Japan
10. Santiago/Valparaiso, Chile
11. Cape Town, South Africa

So what is Washington doing in the middle of that list, and London near the bottom?  What Washington has going for it, obviously, is the National Mall.

“Filling the National Mall is a seriously impressive achievement,” Parkinson says. See, for example, this. A lot of these other capitals offer pretty meager public gathering spaces on the steps of their political institutions. Chater Garden, the main square next to the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, could fit maybe 5,000 people. “It’s so much harder in Hong Kong to express the physical scale of public displeasure,” Parkinson says.

But Washington has a number of problems, too. For one, the mall is policed to the hilt (by the National Park Service, the U.S. Capitol Police, the District police department, the Secret Service…). The mall is suitably massive, but it’s not that easy to use for protest (or picnics, or photo shoots), and it’s really hard to film (watch The Daily Show's Jason Jones got shooed away by a menacing cop on a Segway just last week). The other crucial public space, the Capitol complex, isn’t all that accessible either for citizens who want to actually speak to their elected representatives instead of protesting them. In the era after Sept. 11, you had better not get anywhere near the actual steps of the Capitol.

Parkinson suggests we’ve also degraded the democratic quality of these places by turning them into hushed tourist sites.

"A lot of cities put a lot of effort into treating these sites as heritage sites, as semi-sacred sites of national, secular religion," he says. "And so one is supposed to come to these things with a deferential attitude."

London’s problem is a little different. Without being too deferential, we still want these democratic spaces to be "dignified," Parkinson says. A protest across town from parliament means something symbolically different from one with the institutions of power in the foreground. And what does London have?

“The major square next to parliament, which is creatively called Parliament Square, is tiny,” Parkinson says. “It’s a roundabout, it’s a traffic island. It’s pathetic.”

Democratic gatherings of any real size in London must take place instead in Hyde Park where, Parkinson laments, “it’s not the same imagery” (it will also cost you a lot of money to take the tube there, he adds, and that’s a problem, too). Britain also has a law – the dubiously named Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act – that establishes a one-kilometer perimeter around Parliament. Anyone who wants to demonstrate inside the boundary must get a permit to do so. And they’re frequently denied.

Our Canadian brothers, meanwhile, are much better at all this than Washington and London are. The Canadian parliament has fought repeated attempts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to shut down access to the hill right outside, Parkinson says. And so if you are a Canadian who wants to practice your democratic right to protest right on parliament’s doorstep, you can. In fact, you can walk right into the building and meet with representatives in public meeting rooms reserved specifically for that purposes. You can even, Parkinson says, get married on Parliament Hill.

Can you image ringing up your congressman [in Washington] and saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to have a wedding?’” Parkinson says. “That happens in Canada. It’s a public building. It’s the people’s building, it’s not the politicians’ building. And it’s not a sacred site. It’s a working site.”

Photo credit: L. Kragt Bakker / Shutterstock.com

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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