Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.
– Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Dear Placemakers,

The events, marches, and peaceful uprisings we have witnessed over the last few weeks—in this country and abroad—have made us all think closely about the value and function of public space. It’s clear that now, as ever, public space is the prerequisite for democracy.

The size and number of our public spaces, their distribution across a city or town or nation, and our ability to exercise our rights in them, must surely be important measures for judging how “public” our space actually is. Trying to improve a public space may be a worthy cause, but there is always the threat that it can become less public in the process, less open to everyone, less open to “non-conforming” uses, whether it’s a protest, a march, or something subversive but apolitical, like sleeping on a bench or bathing in a fountain.

Bryant Park, for example, might be a great spot to play ping pong, but Washington Square Park is still where New Yorkers go to hold a rally. Pershing Square ought to be the heart of Los Angeles, but one of the largest Women’s Marches in the country couldn’t spill into this would-be symbolic center because of its fortress-like design. On the other hand, places that were never public spaces, like the loading zones of airports or privately-owned public spaces like Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, can suddenly become public when citizens decide to take them back. In reality, public space is not where the public sector ordains it, but where the public demands it.

True placemaking is not just about the creation of places where we want to go and spend our time. It’s about creating communities that have a greater capacity to self-organize—to pilot their own destinies, to express outrage, solidarity or celebration, to exchange and innovate and incubate new ideas, and yes, to bathe in the fountain. When communities come together to shape their public spaces, these commons can be a platform for democratic life of all kinds.

For Americans, placemaking is a direct, local form of democracy that is sorely needed in a time when our representative democracy is ever more divided, distant and dysfunctional (or perhaps in decline, depending on who you ask). For all of us, in these times of fear and anger, placemaking can be a process for mediating difference and perhaps even peacemaking within and between our communities.

Public space may be the prerequisite for democracy, but its presence alone is not enough. Only the People can ensure the publicness of our public spaces and the vitality of our democracy.

See you in the streets,

Fred Kent


Below we include 5 PPS articles, some new and some from the archive,
that further explore the relationship between democracy and public space:

1. “Whose Streets, Our Streets”: Democracy Still Lives in Public Space

November 22, 2016

Protests remind us of the importance of public spaces, and the pressing issues that ignite them can often help to create public spaces of the best kind—active, meaningful, and inclusive places.

2. 8 Reasons Place Should Matter to Humanitarians

January 24, 2017

For humanitarians, creating safe, inclusive, and accessible cities for the urban displaced means focusing on the importance of place and public space.

3. Public Space Powered Democracy

February 23, 2011

In 2011, democratic uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain showed us that the exercise of democracy depends upon having a literal commons where people can gather as citizens—a square, Main Street, park, or other public space that is open to all.

4. Placemaking for Peacemaking

February 2, 2017

PPS Senior Fellow Rony Jalkh explores how we can use placemaking as a strategy to promote peacemaking in cities facing instability, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region.

5. Equity and Inclusion: Getting to the Heart of Placemaking

August 4, 2016

Given the recent acts of protests and uprisings we have been witnessing in cities throughout the world, it’s becoming clear that sustained community engagement is more important than ever. This article asks how we can move forward in the creation of more equitable places, while also ensuring that the process of creating these places is itself inclusive.

Open Letter: This is What Democracy Looks Like was last modified: February 6th, 2017 by Fred Kent
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