Democratic Public or Social Space


Nahal Sohbati, Academy of Art University, San Francisco, Studying for Masters of Landscape Architecture

Rivka Weinstock, University of Pennsylvania, Studying for Masters of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning

Democratic Public Space, as defined as an ideal for all public spaces, is a place that is publicly owned, universally accessible, both physically and in perception; allows for a diversity of voices and users in all stages of design and occupancy; allows for flexibility of use; is freely used by all individuals and encourages freedom of speech and expression.

Definition of Democracy

Democracy is a mode of living together in which people manage for themselves the conditions of their own existence through collective decision making.

Image from "Le Droit À La Ville" by Henri Lefebvre

Democracy provides citidens with “the right to the city,” which includes the right to participation and appropriation in their shared urban environment. By citidens, we use Henri Lefebvre’s term, which combines citizen (a citizen of the nation-state) and denizen (an inhabitant of the city, who is not necessarily a citizen of the nation-state) (Purcell, 314; Parkinson, 25).

The right to participate maintains that citidens should play an integral role in any decision that contributes to the design or making of urban space. The urban space refers to several urban areas and their related multicentric municipalities forming a whole in a single stretch. In the multicentric urban space, the urban areas are either adjoining or linked together by multicentric municipalities. This space forms a connected whole. An urban space comprising just a single urban area is said to be monocentric.The right to appropriation is the right to occupy and use urban space, as well as the right to produce urban space so that it meets the needs of inhabitants (Purcell, 102).

Relationship between Democracy and Public Space

The first declaration issued by the people’s assembly of Syntagma square (Greece, 2011) read, in part:

“For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We….have come to Syntagma Square (Greece, 2011)…because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands. In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.”  (Purcell, 321)

Public space allows for the free appropriation and expression of space in our cities by all inhabitants. (Within our current system, public spaces do not necessarily always allow for the right to participation, though we argue that to be truly public, they should also include the right for full participation). Without public space, our society will shift into a polarized, privatized arena, dividing society into smaller target groups and segregating people along socio-economic classes. Public spaces are arenas for encountering difference, where we can learn to understand and tolerate the other, as well as participate and view the “theatres of everyday life” providing us with a picture of what makes up our society (Shaftoe, 5, Arendt, Poposki, 713).

Public spaces provide three dimensions of contact that can lead to civic engagement. The first is social contact with diverse populations, which many urban theorists say lead to tolerance (see Benjamin, Simmel, Mumford, Lefebvre, Jacobs). Seeing people who are different than you responding to a space in similar ways creates a temporary bond, which can lead to tolerance of the other. On the other hand, others argue that casual contact can sometimes have the opposite result (for example, snippets of conversation on the street are likely to strengthen adverse social-associations) (Wessel, 12). However, preference for common stimuli (for example, using the same community garden, playing a team sport, or enjoying the same music performance) and extended contact (which leads to familiarity, and then the possibility of friendship), seem to increase the positive effects of contact (Wessel, 7, 12). Programming that increases these elements should therefore be pursued.

The second dimension of public space that leads to civic engagement is contact with the physical, material and temporal nature of public space, which provides a sense of identification with the “pulse of the city”.

The third dimension, referred to as “symbolic projection”, is the symbolic and sensory expression of the currents and moods of public culture manifested in public space. This includes iconography (for example, the quality of design, images of consumption and advertisements and architectural expression) as well as active code (routines of usage and public gathering and what is appropriate behavior in a certain public space). Symbolic projections are powerful codes of public culture, both summarizing cultural trends as well as shaping public opinion (Amin, 2006).

The cultural and social cues of a space affect the type of user group that feels welcome in a space.

Why Now? Relevance Today

The origins of public space as we know it are Greek agoras and Roman forum, which were designed to allow for citizens to gather and take political action. With the transformation of our cities into industrial centers, then car-centric transportation systems, and finally, with digital technology, and a production economy aimed at and encouraging mass-consumption, the city has lost much of its democratic landscape. Public space is no longer for citizens, but designed for consumers, tourists, or employees and no longer controlled by citizens, but by developers, investors, business associations, governments, and police. Commercialization of public spaces segregates people into smaller target groups, and excludes non-paying citizens, seen as loitering. (Shiwari, 209; Parkinson, 4; Benerjee, 10-11).

Some may argue that much of our political life has moved to the digital realm. While the digital realm has made gathering more global, convenient and efficient, using social media as the only political platform runs the risk of echo chambers, and exclusion of diverse voices. Physical public gathering space allows for converging camps and a mix of peoples and perspectives beyond one’s personal network. Finally, we, as people, still take up, occupy and share space and so public and free space is still key to understanding ourselves vis a vis our influence on the larger world (Parkinson; Toloudi; Tiwari, 12).

Democratic Public Space vs. Public Space

Once we agree that public space is necessary in a democratic society, the question then becomes, how should our public spaces function? One way to look at it is as a controlled and orderly space for retreat and recreation, where a properly behaved person can enjoy the spectacle of the city. Another way to look at it is as a space for open interaction, representation, and accessible to all, including marginalized people (Mitchell, 115). This type of public space allows for chaos and disorder. Public Space in the latter respect, though sometimes messy, is extremely important in allowing for the observation and engagement with “difference,” without which we are in danger of becoming increasingly prejudiced and passive, as we delve deeper into our enveloped daily routines (Shaftoe, 19).

Mint Plaza, San Francisco [CMG]

Design and Democracy We need to constantly construct democracy, from the way that we approach the entire process of the production of urban space, including outreach, design and management, to the smallest detail of our experience sitting next to a stranger on a park bench. The process should be as equally important as the outcome.

The design profession focuses primarily on the economic and environmental sustainability of our cities, but we must think deeply and critically about social sustainability (Woodcraft et al. 2012). “Social sustainability”, defined by Woodcraft, “combines the design of the physical realm with the design of the social world” (Woodcraft et al., 2012). In our current system cities are products of professionals, instead of being the outcome of an engaging process of involved users, alienating users from their built environment. Places are not just containers for social life, but themselves social accomplishments, things we make together. And thus, our role as designers is not just as genius creatives, but as mediators and facilitators between the professional world and actual everyday users (Brain, 21).

The community engagement processes we use are token; a process is not more democratic simply because there are more people in the meeting. In our current engagement process there are many voices that are not heard, including young, ethnic minorities, socially marginalized groups, the elderly and people who choose not to participate. Maximum effort must be put into reaching out to voices that are unheard. The process of building a public space needs to expand outward to include education, community building, and then physical change (Frisk, 8).  By educating the public, they will be equipped with the necessary sets of skills to express themselves and their needs. In this process, designers and other professionals need to employ a language that can be understood and is accessible to all, which can be used in public debate.

By providing a community with the tools and language necessary to negotiate the complexities of the built environment, we give them the capacity to make collective decisions about their shared spaces. This is not only good for the design process and the specific community at hand, this is an investment in creating a democratically constructed city (Brain, 23).

There may not be one right way to design a democratic public space, but by learning and experimenting, testing assumptions, and responding, and by putting the citidens or users in the center of the process, we are performing democracy (Baker and Hurely, 11). Design also teaches us that the physical space around us is a manifestation of the way we construct our society and in turn how it constructs us. As Winston Churchill suggested, when we shape the city, in turn, it shapes us.

Washington Square Park, NYC

Given that context plays such a large role in what makes a design successful in any given place, there isn’t one way to design a democratic public space. For example, when Walter Hood was asked to redesign Lafayette Park in Oakland, it was used mainly by homeless people, drug users and other “undesirables.” Calls for a redesign were seen by some as a way to rid the space of “undesirables,” but Hood’s design attempted to accommodate the existing users, as well as include a wide array of new users. He did this by creating a series of spaces for different users, separated by berms, while maintaining visual connections. In designing a democratic public space, there’s not one right way to approach it; by setting diversity as the goal, and by understanding context, culture and users’ needs, the methods to achieving that goal will differ (Hester, 81).

In his book, Convivial Urban Spaces, Henry Shaftoe studied several successful public urban spaces (successful in that they are used), and found that they share some common attributes, which he broadly categorizes under physical, geographical, managerial, and psychological/sensual (Shaftoe 139-141).


  • Plenty of sitting places
  • Good quality and robust
  • Adaptable (both for different uses and over time)
  • Asymmetrical, yet well proportioned (balance without symmetry)
  • Variety and intriguing details (i.e. not monolithic)
  • Carefully considered and appropriate horizontal surface treatments
  • Not too large – or too small
  • Permeable edges


  • Location (urban core, neighborhood or suburb)
  • Clusters, sequences and strings of spaces
  • Relation to transport (motorized and pedestrian routes)


  • Diversity of use
  • Promotion of a relaxed, round-the-clock culture
  • Inclusiveness
  • Well maintained and clean
  • Vehicular circulation banned or tightly controlled
  • Adequately lit
  • Animation/Activation

Psychological and Sensual

  • Human scale
  • Individuality and uniqueness
  • Feeling of safety (unthreatening)
  • Comfortable microclimate
  • Visually satisfactory
  • Incorporation of natural elements
  • Acoustically pleasant
  • Opportunities to eat and drink

Democratic Public Space as a System

When we talk about public spaces, we often construct a clear duality between public spaces and private spaces. Instead, it could be useful to bring more nuance into the way we understand public. Public Spaces could have one or more of the following features: (1) it is openly accessible; (2) it consumes collective resources (it’s owned by the public sector); (3) it has common impact; (4) it is a stage for the performance of public roles (Parkinson, 201).

Every public space should not have to perform every public role. It is important to look at the degree to which a particular city provides space for a variety of experiences and performances of democratic practices (Parkinson, 185).

Streetscapes – residential, commercial and civic boulevards

Square/Plaza – civic square (commons), church square, college campus

Park – garden, cemetery, large park, neighborhood park, regional park, national park

Linear Systems – bikeways, paths and trails

Outdoor Sport and Recreational Facilities – playgrounds, sport fields, school sites, golf courses, skate parks, outdoor fitness parks

Campground and Picnic Areas

Nature Preserves

(Sandalack and Uribe, 47)

Democratic Public Space should include the following:

  • Access
    • Accessibility to and from the space/connectivity
    • Universal Accessibility in the space
    • Mental/Psychological Accessibility
    • Inclusion and Belonging
    • Curfews/Policing
      • A safe, accessible and equitable space for all users regardless of physical or cognitive ability. Perceived accessibility is just as important as physical accessibility. Policing access and curfews discourage freedom of expression and use, which is essential to democratic public space.
  • Diversity
    • Diversity of users: inclusive across age, race, ethnicity, income, sexual identity, gender, religion, ability.
    • Diversity of voices in the design process
    • Promoting diversity and unity
      • Ensuring that a diversity of users are welcome and encouraged to use the space, ensuring a diversity of voices in the planning and design process. Ensuring that redesign of spaces promotes a diversity of users and does not exclude “undesirables”.
  • Ownership/Engagement/Guardianship
    • Owned by the public (as opposed to POPOS)
      • Public participation in the design process
      • Public guardianship post-occupancy
        • Public ownership of public space ensures that people have freedom of use and expression (and are not kicked out for self-expression, as in the case of Zucotti Park). How can we ensure that spaces are truly designed by the people and for the people? Are our current public engagement practices radical enough? Should public spaces be designed at all?
  • Flexibility
    • Programming/Usage
    • Spatial
    • Present and Future
      • Flexible to different users’ needs and different types of events, from social to more intimate. It should also consider present and future uses.
  • Freedom of Expression/Speech
    • Allowing for freedom of expression and speech
    • Serving as a “commons” – a space for expressions of community (ex. art events, festivals, celebrations, mourning, etc.)
      • Allowing for a mix of people and perspectives to freely express, exchange, debate, and dissent
  • Perception
    • Considering how a space is perceived and how that relates to all of the above categories.


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Arendt, Hannah.  [1958] 1998.  The Human Condition, 2nd edition.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Banejeree, Tridib. “The future of Public Space” APA Journal vol. 67, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 5-24.

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Source(s) and Link(s):

About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
This entry was posted in Class Notes, earth, urban morphology, Urban Studies. Bookmark the permalink.

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