Open Letter: This is What Democracy Looks Like
By Fred Kent on Feb 6, 2017
Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.
– Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
The events, marches, and peaceful uprisings we have witnessed over the last few weeks—in this country and abroad—have made us all think closely about the value and function of public space. It’s clear that now, as ever, public space is the prerequisite for democracy.
The size and number of our public spaces, their distribution across a city or town or nation, and our ability to exercise our rights in them, must surely be important measures for judging how “public” our space actually is. Trying to improve a public space may be a worthy cause, but there is always the threat that it can become less public in the process, less open to everyone, less open to “non-conforming” uses, whether it’s a protest, a march, or something subversive but apolitical, like sleeping on a bench or bathing in a fountain.
Bryant Park, for example, might be a great spot to play ping pong, but Washington Square Park is still where New Yorkers go to hold a rally. Pershing Square ought to be the heart of Los Angeles, but one of the largest Women’s Marches in the country couldn’t spill into this would-be symbolic center because of its fortress-like design. On the other hand, places that were never public spaces, like the loading zones of airports or privately-owned public spaces like Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, can suddenly become public when citizens decide to take them back. In reality, public space is not where the public sector ordains it, but where the public demands it.
True placemaking is not just about the creation of places where we want to go and spend our time. It’s about creating communities that have a greater capacity to self-organize—to pilot their own destinies, to express outrage, solidarity or celebration, to exchange and innovate and incubate new ideas, and yes, to bathe in the fountain. When communities come together to shape their public spaces, these commons can be a platform for democratic life of all kinds.
For Americans, placemaking is a direct, local form of democracy that is sorely needed in a time when our representative democracy is ever more divided, distant and dysfunctional (or perhaps in decline, depending on who you ask). For all of us, in these times of fear and anger, placemaking can be a process for mediating difference and perhaps even peacemaking within and between our communities.
Public space may be the prerequisite for democracy, but its presence alone is not enough. Only the People can ensure the publicness of our public spaces and the vitality of our democracy.
See you in the streets,