Democracy’s Nurseries: How Public Spaces Build Democratic Values
To build democracy in America, America must build public spaces. More than any other system of governance, democracy depends upon the shared space. Democracy often owes its very existence to these spaces. Yet, instead of the public space, America has long idealized private property and promoted social atomization. Through a variety of mechanisms –physical, political, and philosophical– America has often limited access to spaces. It has even destroyed spaces that show signs of becoming public. The country’s history of racist segregation, free market fundamentalism, neoliberal ideology, and imperialist impulses has nurtured fortification. At almost every level of use and interface in America, one experiences design that prioritizes security above access, money over people, and a razorwire architecture that fosters and enforces anti-democratic values and social dynamics. If America wishes to become democratic, it must nurture democratic values. To do this, it must tear down its walls and build connections. It must build democracy’s nurseries. Public spaces are these nurseries.
To build these spaces effectively, it is necessary to expand and alter the common definition of a public space. The conventional American view of a public space resembles a city park. It is an area owned by the government yet separated from the public’s day to day business. It may hold the occasional event –a concert or a non-disruptive rally– but it is, basically, an area set apart from normal life. Such spaces are only plausibly public. They often bear the same relationship to true public space that a tiger’s zoo habitat has to a jungle. Such spaces are public space tamed and simulated. They look public and are regarded as public, and, just as a zoo habitat might contain trees and be kept at the correct temperature, these places might even contain the elements of a public space. Yet the very borders of these spaces menaces their public nature. They are designed to be a refuge from daily life and are thus separated from it. Very little of what the public actually does in public happens in a park. If anything, the park is most often designed to be a place where one can escape the public.
While public funding and ownership is important –particularly in the area of amenities– parks show that this funding is not, by itself, enough to create a public space. Our definition of a public space should be rooted more in a sense of collective participation and group ownership rather than in the mere financial facts of ownership. Ownership is important and different sorts and styles tend to create different sorts of spaces but even an area where ownership is largely private can be public. A city street, properly built, buzzing with the hustle and bustle of commerce and daily life, can be a much more remarkably public and democratic space than a government funded park, which one is afraid to walk through after dark. Although often largely owned, built, and maintained by a mix of small entrepreneurs rather than the government, these areas can still create a genuine impression of public space. They encourage the behaviors associated with that impression. In Jane Jacobs’ book The Life and Death of Great American Cities she describes some of these behaviors as springing from a sense of “public responsibility” and noted that this sense is learned on city streets by children who learn “the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other” (Jacobs, 1961, p. 82). This sense of public responsibility is essential to any public space. This sense is the first fundamental of the public space and city life and it is also the first fundamental of democracy. And this sense of public space doesn’t emerge on just any city street. It only happens on certain sorts of streets made in certain sorts of ways.
The type of streets that encourage this sense are built with an integrated rather than segregated approach to crime prevention. These approaches, described by Karina Landman in Boundaries, Bars, and Barricades share the same ostensible goal -crime prevention– but are very different from one another. An integrated approach uses a variety of measures to “support the establishment of an open, incorporating, and assimilating urban environment to reduce conflict through association” while a segregated approach includes “the minimization of the degree of shared public space inside residential areas, territoriality and defensible space, target-hardening, and access control” (Landman, 2009, 215). Like the South Africa she describes, America has largely adopted the segregated approach. One need only to leave their locked and guarded apartment complex to purchase the selection of innocuous items under lock and keys at the grocery store, speak with a gas station clerk through bullet-proof glass, and to pass through the metal detectors at a baseball game to see some of the more obvious examples of target hardening and the segregated approach. Just looking around, it’s easy to observe in American cities, as Mike Davis did, an excessive and “unprecedented tendency to merge urban design, architecture and the police apparatus into a single, comprehensive security effort” (Davis, 1990, 224). But much of this effort to segregate is not so easy to see.
Like the near-constant roar of police helicopters in a city such as Los Angeles, a sound that quickly fades into background rumbling, the locks on doors and parks, the razor wires and security guards, which are quickly be taken for granted as necessary if inconvenient facts of life, much of the segregated approach happens below the level of conscious noticing. In some cases, this invisibility is caused by the sheer ubiquity of the terrible spectacle — a spectacle that numbs one to its most excessive elements while rendering its lesser elements almost benign. In other cases, these measures are designed to be invisible. Indeed, one of America’s foremost designers, a man directly responsible for more building and demolishing than possibly any other human in history, a builder of parks, highways, bridges, and projects, the man who shaped New York City, Robert Moses, quietly and purposely designed segregation into his bridges. He designed these bridges so that no bus from New York carrying inner city minorities would be able to use these buses and bridges on his parkways to reach his parks because, while there were laws at the time limiting the access of these groups, Moses, according to his friend Sid Shapiro, “knew you could change the legislation. You can’t change a bridge after it’s up” (Caro, 1975, p. 952). And you needed to be an expert on buses and bridges with some measuring tape to know what he’d done.
This effort to restrict the use of places and services is not limited to bridges. The modern American city is full of hostile or defensive architecture. Most of this architecture is designed to blend in with the urban environment, camouflaging itself as beautification measures, disguising itself as devices to increase public comfort, and masquerading as enhanced livability. A person who has never slept rough may think that the armrests put on park benches are there so that they can rest their arms. But these armrests are designed to “render them impossible for sleeping” (Wallace, 2018). This same person may go through life believing that the abundant sprinklers are for watering the grass. But these sprinklers are meant to act as hoses that repel the homeless or anyone else presumed “not healthy for retail business” (Wallace, 2018). The modern American urban environment is an assault on the very people, the loiterers, who make a space public. The American urban environment has become an attack on anyone failing to act in the interest of controlled consumption, brand development, and property values. It is a war fought with a variety of tools. The presence of these objects is complimented by the absence of others. These are lacks described as “ghost amenities” by #defensiveTO, which notes that “the absence of amenities like benches and public washrooms can be barrier for people who are elderly, people with disabilities, or people with a chronic illness” and “makes the city more hostile for everyone who is in need of rest and relief” (Chellew, 2019). Being a lack rather than a presence, these missing amenities are even harder for the public to see. They aren’t just invisible. They aren’t even there.
Being hard to see is often part of the point. Much of this design is done, not to deal with actual problems but to manage perceptions of problems. As Quentin Stevens notes in Broken Public Spaces, “perceived crime risks have more impact upon people’s use of places than actual crime levels” and, as a result, livability policies often “focus on fighting problems which are perceived to be the immediate causes of disorder, rather than making direct amenity improvements to neighborhoods and public spaces through government investment” and that this “push for image management of public spaces has often included the criminalization of homeless people who were sleeping, washing or going to the toilet in public fulfilling everyday needs which, paradoxically, are all about livability and cleanliness – because urban economic and physical redevelopment has allowed no private place for them to perform these activities” (Stevens, pp 375, 379-380). As such the general hostility of the invisible architecture combined with its lacks is also meant to render large groups of people and their needs invisible.1 This hiding of problems instead of solving them distorts the image a society has of itself and, in consequence, warps its priorities and perspectives, causing great damage to its capacity for effective self-government. It is difficult to govern what you cannot see and dangerous to govern what you do not understand. Segregated security and hostile architecture makes people attempt to do both.
Designs such as Moses’ bridges, which attempt to override legislation with concrete and hostile architecture designed to quietly make public spaces unusable to vast portions of the public while rendering the attacked public invisible, are clearly and deliberately anti-democratic. But, just as important as the physical effects of these security measures is their psychological and social effects.This approach to property, criminality, and security functions by presence and absence. The presence of these measures actively instills deeply anti-democratic values while the absence of public spaces removes the practice of social and democratic values. The excess of security measures and lack of public spaces, together, conspire to derange a society and overthrow democracy.
The well-constructed public space is uniquely suited to instill the suite of values that democracy requires. These are areas where people feel more responsibility than ownership, where they can be citizens rather than consumers, and inhabitants rather than trespassers. These are not values that lead directly or automatically to democracy but they are values that a democracy depends upon. Sunlight or heat may not lead directly to life, but, far as we know, life cannot exist without it.
Perhaps, the most important of these fundamental values is trust. Democratic governance requires collective action and collective action requires trust. Trust requires oxytocin and this chemical allows some insight into how trust is built, what it is, what it can do, and how it can be abused.
In a study on the neurobiology of collective action, researchers established the link between oxytocin and trust, and noted that study participants who were given 401U of intranasal oxytocin, “reported more agreement with the statement that most people can be trusted than those on placebo” and “although OT [oxytocin] did not directly impact trust in the government” that “when trust in government is higher, civic CA [collective action] is likely to follow” (Zak, Barraza, 2013).
But trust in the government at large or a government in particular may not be nearly as
important to democracy or collective action as having trust in each other. According to Uslaner’s work in The Foundations of Trust: Micro and Macro, “generalized trust represents a sense of social solidarity, a belief that other people, especially people unlike yourself, are part of your moral community” and that the foundations of this trust “are the same at both the micro and micro level—a sense of optimism and control at both levels as well as economic equality, which in turn leads to greater optimism, at the macro level” (Uslaner, 2008, pp 290, 293). Although there remains quite a bit of debate whether functioning democratic societies experience more trust as a result of their functioning institutions or whether trust helps to create these institutions, there is little debate that the two states are connected. As such, it is unnecessary to arrange this relationship between trust and institutions into a linear causality. The relationship between trust and institutions is, most likely, a sort of social feedback loop and it is unnecessary to find a primary cause. It is more than enough to only show that generalized trust is an important part of that dynamic. It clearly is.
The same can be said of trust’s relationship to public spaces. Uslaner believes that “institutions that lead to greater equality promote trust, if not causing it directly” (Uslaner, 2008, 294). But one does not need to even go that far. There is no need to believe that a public space will automatically create trust or that a public space is created as a direct result of trust – one only needs to acknowledge that trust and the public space are related to see that, to improve democracy, public spaces must be built. A public space can be both a cause of greater equality and trust, and a result of greater equality and trust. A public space expands a person’s sense of their moral community because it expands access to the physical parts of that community and invests its members in its preservation. A public space, simply by existing, becomes both a public interest and a container of public interests. It is not just a place to rally in but a set of interests to rally around.
This dynamic can be observed in a variety of public collective actions but, very clearly, in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A bus is a public space, not just because it is publicly funded but because it is shared by a wide cross-section of the public. Whatever other differences might exist between members of this public, they have a shared interest in the functioning of the buses. This creates points of pressure but, also, points of empathetic understanding. Although Rosa Parks, who started the boycott by refusing to move to the back of the bus was an activist, she is often “depicted as a woman with no history of civil rights activism at the time of her arrest” (HISTORY.COM Editors, 2019). There’s a lot of possible reasons for this common and inaccurate depiction of Rosa Parks2 but the strongest single reason for this popular portrayal may be the simplest: It’s almost universally relatable. Having used buses, most people can relate to being tired on one, to needing a seat after a long day’s work. The public nature of the bus allows this point of empathy. A shared experience, it allows many people to see themselves in Parks’ situation and that empathy can turn to questions about how they might and should react to this injustice. Placed in the context of a public bus, her actions are emotionally legible.
One can understand, one can emphasize, and empathy helps. But one should not depend too much upon empathy or upon the sting of conscience. The public space of the bus also provides a shared interest and an area where public pressure can be effectively applied. When faced with aversive arousal –that is, a problem– a person must decide whether to involve themselves in solving that problem or simply reduce their distress by escaping it. To make this decision, they perform a cost-benefit analysis. Empathy is part of this analysis and “empathetic concern is assumed to increase the costs for not engaging, for example, producing guilt, shame, and further distress if the observer does not help or cooperate” (Zak, Barraza, 2013). Because these unpleasant feelings tip the heart towards distress, making distress almost inescapable, these feelings tilt the scales towards action, engagement, and justice.
Yet guilt and shame are not innate products of a human heart isolated from the world around it. These feelings can be and are socially produced. For good or ill, the public space allows this production of guilt and shame. It allows a public site to protest in public. The public space is an emotional network of common interests that can be physically boycotted. It is a place whose very use and existence is utterly beholden to collective action. To either use it or not use a public space during a boycott requires taking a public stand. Because this stand must be taken in public, a person’s choice can produce larger amounts of shame, while the public itself can enforce this shame. The bus system, being public and requiring use in public, is vulnerable to protest in a way that a highly private system such as “ridesharing” simply is not. A boycott that only exists in a variety of private and secretive encounters depends too much on private conscience. The ethically dubious calculations of a private conscience will often prioritize convenience, good feelings, and escape. Only the public space, with its interest in reputation and need for mutual respect, can create enough distress and shame to enforce the more active and engaged aspects of empathy. The public space in acts as both a shared interest that expands a moral community and a site of rebellious democracy and ruthless judgment. Often, it does these things all at once.
In contrast, a private space and an abundance of security alters the cost-benefit analysis of aversive arousal by tilting the scales in favor of escape over empathetic engagement and democratic action. It is easier –it may even feel better– to render the homeless invisible than it feels to be goaded by shame into engaging with the problems of poverty. It is easier to harden targets than it is to change the property relations and norms that have people viewing themselves and others as targets. Shame feels bad. Power feels good. These scales are rigged and easy to tip. And, when these security measures are taken for granted, when the weapons are invisible even as they render their targets invisible, these measures numb all sense of shame before it can ripen into empathy – killing collective action at the root. These measures protect one’s moral math against the empathetic variables of shame and guilt and thereby change the result of the equation. When these measures are rendered visible, they often act as a form of theater, a kabuki show of threatening security meant to assure people that they are ‘one of the good ones’, validate their status as a member of an in-group while terrorizing the out-group, and acting as evidence that there must really be a real threat against this invented status quo.
These private spaces, particularly those that masquerade as public, also create a form of trust. It’s not, however, the generalized trust that a public space creates. Instead, the shared private spaces of gated communities, seem designed to create “particularized trusters (who only trust their own kind) strongly distrust outsiders” and this “strong in-group trust and low out group trust” is linked “to high levels of corruption” (Uslaner, 2008, 293). Even as these measures erase, terrorize and make the lives of the out-groups more difficult, they make the general community spirit of the in-group worse.
This too comes from trust. Oxytocin motivates trust but trust can be dangerous. A study on whether and how this chemical promotes ethnocentrism, found that “rather than making humans prosocial, oxytocin functions to strengthen an evolutionary evolved and rather functional tendency to discriminate between in-group and out-group as well as to give members of one’s own group preferential treatment” (Drei, Greer, Van Kleef, et al, 2011). As such, how we decide who is in our group and who is out is of paramount importance. A gated community makes those decisions for us. A fortified retail environment makes those decisions for us. Segregated security makes those decisions for us. And they always make the same decision: White money is welcome. Everything else is suspect.
Public spaces may not lead automatically to membership in a wider moral community but they create an area for a wide variety of in-groups to be formed across wide cross sections of mutual interests. These spaces may not solve the problems of democracy but, in helping to create areas of generalized trust, where people are invested in each other because such investment is easier than escape, where people look out for each other because they see themselves in the other, public spaces allow and encourage the trust, shame, empathy and collective actions that democracy depends upon. They act as weights on a scale that is already rigged –chemically, emotionally and economically– against democracy and towards the private space. These private spaces cater to the most brutal and shameless parts of the human experience, and do not produce individuals so much as alienated monsters engaged in their own particularized and violent forms of anti-democratic collective action. The opposite of Woody Guthrie’s famous guitar, the private space is a machine that builds fascists.
In contrast to the private space’s invisible exclusions and its public spectacles of terror, the public space allows everyone and anyone to enter and be made visible. These are the integrated spaces where entry makes you an inhabitant, a custodian, and a citizen. These are the spaces where common interests can be discovered, thoughtful compromises negotiated, and democracy lived instead of simply bought or watched. They are sites that encourage shame, co-operation, and rebellion. They can be as simple and quiet as a public toilet, a bus, or a community garden, and they can be as complex as a bustling fish market or an organically built city street. Public spaces are not owned by conglomerates and filled with well-rehearsed and costly spectacles. They are not owned at all. They may be populated by entrepreneurs but they are also financed and maintained by governments, filled with shared amenities, and inhabited by people in conversation and action. Public spaces do not build walls between people. They are the important daily business of tearing walls down.
The health of the public space is the health of democracy itself.
1 I don’t really have the space to go into it with this paper but I’d like to note that these measures also make certain conceptions of normality more visible and more normal. Through filtering, these measures create and prop up a status quo that then appears normal and its perceived normality then acts as exclusion. To see how this works, one need only think of the various racist practices that made the American government mainly straight, white, male protestants, and reflect upon how this created fact can then act in a variety of ways to exclude anyone who isn’t these things. It’s the same basic principle.
2 The American political discourse seems to show a tendency to erase activism and its effectiveness, have a desire to pretend that activists are not normal people, and often evinces a strong urge to draw a line of ‘either or” between “normal people” and political activists. One can probably imagine the reasons for this without thinking too hard.
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