A Plaza Is No Guarantee of Democracy

Public space matters much less than what occurs in (and around) it.

The dramatic entrance to the Richard Rogers-designed Leadenhall Building in London ostensibly invites pedestrians walking on the ground-level public plaza upwards. The building, however, is not so easily accessed.

Courtesy Matt Brown via flickr

The past few months have seen the opening of high-profile projects with contested public space. The Leadenhall Building, London’s “Cheesegrater,” rises above a public plaza that the Financial Times called “problematic,” with “an astonishing array of defensive measures to make it clear that while it may be open to the public, it is still ours” (that is, the landlord’s). In New York, the World Trade Center plaza has taken fire from critics, both domestic and international, who chafe at restrictions on visitors’ behavior.

It evokes the debate over “privately owned public space,” or POPS, that arose during Occupy Wall Street, when protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park, a Lower Manhattan plaza that is privately owned by Brookfield Office Properties yet must remain open to the public. Many rightly pointed out the restrictions that POPS pose to free speech and assembly, when owners can evict people they consider unwelcome.

Yet for all the hand-wringing about privatization, what really matters is not who owns the space, but what activities are allowed to occur there. Take Ferguson, Missouri, where a militarized police force turned rifles and tear gas on unarmed protesters and the press in the most public place of all: the street. The major lessons of Ferguson aren't about design or privatization—they're about race, class, and the manner in which the state interacts with its citizens.

Protests in Ferguson demonstrate how public spaces can become easily—and quickly—militarized by authorities.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Not for nothing have the events in Ferguson drawn comparisons to civil rights–era Alabama. In Selma, too, authorities responded with excessive force to peaceful protesters who had every right to occupy public streets. More recently, the NYPD illegally detained protesters during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Even non-protest activities aren’t immune from overreach. Despite a definitive legal setback, “stop-and-frisk” policing remains controversial, and Vice recently reported that loitering has essentially been criminalized on drug-prone streets of Camden, New Jersey.  

In each instance, the quality or ownership of the space matters much less than the authorities’ (sometimes brutal) restriction of (legal) speech and activities. The causes—autocratic leadership, institutional paranoia, and political or financial gain or some combination thereof—differ, but the result is the same: overreaction, and curtailed liberties within explicitly public space.

And while public space can be restricted, let's not forget that private spaces can also be productive sites of dissent under the right conditions. After all, Brookfield and the NYPD allowed the Occupy Wall Street encampment to exist for nearly two months before eviction, sparking a worldwide protest movement in the process. (And Mayor Bloomberg's stated justification for finally clearing Zuccotti—health and safety—would also carry legal weight in a truly public space like Central Park or Times Square.)

Police officers oversee crowds in Times Square.

Courtesy of Elvert Barnes via flickr

That’s not to say architects and developers are never guilty of over-celebrating space that is only nominally public. Do the Shard’s observation deck, with its £25 admissions fee, and expansive porte-cochère really qualify as “public”? (Or, back at Ground Zero, the observation deck of One World Trade Center?) Nor is it to say that design has no role to play in encouraging or hindering free speech—after all, Haussmann often justified those beautiful Parisian boulevards as a means of facilitating military movements.

But it’s easy to assume that once public space (whether nominal or actual) has been created, we have done our job—democracy achieved! In reality, the hard work is just beginning. Even careful programming—whether with leisure activities, culture, or even demonstrations—won’t matter if the authorities stomp in with tear gas and pepper spray. It takes political action to ensure a democratic society, not just design.

So when Dame Hadid says that architects aren’t responsible for the social context that surrounds their buildings, she might have a point. But citizens are responsible—and that’s all of us.

Carl Yost is a communications manager for NBBJ and an architecture and design writer based in New York.

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