The democratization of public space

I love history. I believe that we do not live on preordained paths, but I also believe that history repeats itself. The second our present ends, it becomes our history. (Which makes me wonder how thick history books will be when my son reaches middle school.)

I’ve been captivated by the images and news coming out of Egypt, not because it fills my daily quota for violence on television, but because it’s history. I imagined this is how all democracies began. There’s a ruling monarch (whether it be a person of royalty or a person in charge of a dominant political party, the buck usually stopped with one person) that pushes just a bit too hard on the general populace, and then people begin to gather. Tens of thousands of individuals, independent moving cogs in society, take on one voice. And that one voice begins to echo from the most democratic space in all the land – the public square.

The public square has historically served as a center for commerce and a living room for societies, typically flanked by what influenced society the most when the square was built (like a market, cathedral, government building, or football stadium). In a bygone era when communication relied on word of mouth, the public square served as a beacon for information. It essentially served as a place where the government could influence its people.

Of course the flip-side to that is public squares became a place for impromptu gatherings of people to complain about the government, to voice concern over the imbalance of power, and in some instances as a spark for to overthrow the government. These gatherings are the very root of democracy – an uncensored discourse over civil liberties, and that a truly democratic government is one that fears the people, not rules over them.

And just like architecture, public spaces are filled with symbolism. I suspect there are many public squares in Cairo, and that the protesters could have voiced their message from any of them. But they chose Tahrir Square, meaning liberation square. The name evokes freedom, and the symbolism spawns a sense of destiny in the protesters’ cause.

So I began to think what if people in my immediate area wanted to protest against the government (I love what-if scenarios), where would they meet? Are there any public spaces that promote people coming together voicing their concerns, that convey the symbolism of freedom, that honor democracy? Do we design public spaces in this country that advance a public discourse on freedoms and liberties?

Democracy depends on civil participation. Without this participation democracy morphs into a type of government where our leaders assume more control. In order to answer if our public spaces are democratic, one only needs to ask if our spaces promote participation.

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