It’s not an accident that we attach the adjective ‘democratic’ to either describe actual public spaces, or to mark our aspirations for them. Indeed, there’s a flotilla of warm words – ‘shared’, ‘communal’, ‘inclusive’, ‘accessible’ – that together act as a collective nod towards the features and atmosphere we believe a truly public, ‘public space’ should evoke.
In the background, no doubt, lurk images and ideas drawn from the Agora of classical Greece and the Athenian City-State, though its democracy was, by our proclaimed modern democratic standards, somewhat lacking in reach, in inclusivity. Basically, if you were an Athenian bloke you were in the club; if not, then not.
It is however useful to notice that whilst by our ‘modern’ standards fifth century BCE Athenian democracy does not pass muster, its limitations were an overt, explicit, ‘in-your-face’ articulation of the very fabric of the political, social and economic structure of that society. By way of contrast, visiting and sitting around in what can broadly be described as ‘public spaces’, I’m struck by just how difficult it is to create democratic spaces, how difficult it is to counter the forces and influences that limit fulfilment of our democratic and inclusive aspirations. These can include, often in potent negative mix: forms of land ownership; demographics; socio-economic class; race, age and gender; forms of decision-making; confused objectives; inappropriate design; mad, thought-neutering timescales; and the allure of fad and fashion . Continue reading