Are we in the Midst of Public Space Crisis?

Public space that encourages dialogue and welcomes everyone – regardless of age, wealth, race, religion or sexual orientation – is a core aspect of democracy. As artist and social activist Krzysztof Wodizko put it, these places exist for both “the privileged and the unwanted.”

But few of today’s public spaces adequately prioritize this mission. Figuring out how to change this is at the core of my own work. In my creative practice and research, I study public spaces in American and European cities and investigate how classical concepts, buildings, and small structures for public space – the kind that existed during the earliest days of democracy – have been repackaged during contemporary times. Bottom line: Whether the economy is growing, or is on crisis, welcoming public spaces are in decline – at least, those that exist in the real world. Increasingly, debates that once took place face-to-face happen on the Ιnternet, on Facebook, Twitter and countless other digital forums and platforms. You might say the Squarespaces of the world are replacing public squares.

Ancient Greek Foundations

Since ancient Greece, public space has been vital to people and cities. It’s where citizens debated everything, from current events to business to the nature of the universe. It’s where they voted for politicians, preserved the law and participated collectively in making decisions for civic matters – all the elements that foster a functioning democracy. In fact, the birth of democracy in fifth century B.C. didn’t arise just from a combination of philosophical ideas, scientific discoveries and technological advances. Dedicated physical spaces also played a huge role: civic centers and marketplaces, along with open spaces between buildings, where people often mingled. The most notable example is the Athenian Agora.

The Stoa of Attalos.
DerHexer/Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

It’s almost impossible to find contemporary examples of the agora, where anyone could actively participate and shape civic matters. Today, urban growth eliminates accessibility to public spaces. And when public spaces do get created, they’re often designed for the privileged and wealthy. For example, in New York City, High Line Park is a relatively new public space that has been highly praised by media and press. The promenade, which winds along a former elevated freight rail line, borders some of the city’s wealthiest areas. It has become a major draw for the tourists and locals who populate Chelsea, now one of the most expensive neighborhoods of the city.

To be sure, High Line does not bar entry to “undesirables.” But the rising rents and increasing living costs around it eventually dislocate existing businesses and poorer populations to other parts of the city, making trips to these new, gleaming parks expensive and time-consuming.

Budget Cuts, Philanthropic Approaches

People stroll along Manhattan’s High Line Park.
David Berkowitz/flickrCC BY

So what’s behind our notable shortage of truly democratic public spaces? On the one hand, budget cuts have crippled governments’ ability to invest in public spaces, such as parks, for poor neighborhoods. On the other hand, wealthy philanthropists who often fund or contribute to public projects will often end up simply serving their own interests and needs by investing in convenient areas that are close to their homes and offices.

Extra security and ubiquitous surveillance – which have increased since the advent of global terrorism – not only discourage gatherings and eliminate services, but they also transform public space in ways that make them even more dangerous. In sum, public spaces have gradually transformed into areas that are less open, less democratic, less comfortable, less enjoyable and less “ours.”

From In Person to Impersonal

With public space shrinking, it’s worth noting that web access is expanding and absorbing much of the dialogue and debate that once took place in person. Internet, mobile and other communication technologies certainly create opportunities for citizens to participate in addressing public challenges. There’s even a term for it – e-democracy – and a number of public- and private- sector platforms provide an avenue to citizen engagement, whether it’s social networking, online forums or argument maps.

By being able to access to transparent information, these platforms can reinforce participation, create inclusiveness and promote voting equality. Meanwhile, social media platforms allow people to express solidarity, raise awareness about global events. New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman has argued that social media can initially act as a powerful voice, but does a poor job keeping momentum and effecting actual change. Social media has also been shown to reinforce polarization and hate speech. Look no further than the echo chamber phenomenon, where people tend to listen only to those who share their beliefs, and the trolling of strangers. Moreover, social media is still not sufficiently accessible to scores of underprivileged people.

But there also seems to something else lost when we resort to debating in online spaces, behind the comfort and security of our screens. Social scientist Sherry Turkle has found that digital technology harms users’ abilities to feel empathy and self-reflect, which causes people to avoid face-to-face conversations and other traditional forms of communication.

New Intersections

In my work, one of my goals is to design public spaces that encourage dialogue, participation, collective activities, interaction and exchange – in other words, democracy. My own project, Parrhesiastic Play (inspired by the Greek word “parrhesia,” which means “to speak freely”), explores free speech at the intersection of public, physical space and the digital world. For the project, chairs and sculptural letters can be placed in public areas; passersby are then free to rearrange in them into different forms, words and phrases. There are multiple locations, and cameras are constantly recording the people, allowing them to communicate with people in the other Parrhesiastic Play locations around the world.

Parrhesiastic Play.
Zenovia Toloudi / Studio Z, Awarded proposal for Theatrum Mundi’s “Designing For Free Speech” challenge. @ Image credits: Zenovia Toloudi / Studio Z

By linking physical spaces with a live webcam network, Parrhesiastic Play gives people a stage to “perform” before the cameras. It’s a playful way to comment on the rise of surveillance while interacting with a large audience. While this is just one project, I hope to, in my own way, comment on the need to create architecture for the public that integrates the “free” dialogue that happens in the realm of social media with physical, everyday activities.

Picking the aforementioned challenges of public space, my exhibition Speak! Listen! Act! A Kaleidoscope of Architectural Elements for Public Space, on view at Dartmouth College, draws from field trips with students in big cities such as New York and Athens, and presents ideas on how to create user-friendly structures in public squares that promote dialogue and social interaction, while reinforcing freedom of speech and democracy.

Speak! Listen! Act! A Kaleidoscope of Architectural Elements for Public Space exhibition.
Zenovia Toloudi / Studio Z @ Photographs: Gerald Auten

Zenovia Toloudi, architect, Intl. Assoc. AIA, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Dartmouth College.
An earlier version of this was originally published on The Conversation.
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