Democracy, participation, and public space

By David Maddox

Two architects, P.K. Das from Mumbai and Paul Downton from Adelaide, have recently written about public space on The Nature of Cities. Both essays, from very different angles, are about the fundamental principles around which public spaces should be planned, organized, and motivated in human landscapes such as cities. If a single word suffices, that word must be "democratic".

Das, in "Ecology Rights and City Development Plans: The Case of Mumbai" is talking about the exciting inclusion of public participation in the creation of the 20-year Mumbai Development Plan, due out this year. Among many issues that active citizens and environmental groups have flagged is that of ecology and environment. Ecology and environmental causes have long been considered by authorities to be burdens on the “development” agenda, particularly so in a "land starved" city such as Mumbai. Nevertheless, public participation in the preparation of the new development plan has been greater than anytime before and, under pressure from people's movements and active citizenry, the Municipal Corporation has included public consultations before finalizing the new plan. It’s not perfect, but still this is probably the first time when such collective and concerted effort has been so successful in Mumbai. This is a crucial moment in a city where true public space available to actual citizens is remarkably scarce, and what there so often co-opted by non-public interests.

Downton, in "Graffiti on the Path and the Nature of Public Space", is talking about what appeared to be interesting graffiti on a public path in Melbourne, but which in fact turned out to be guerilla advertising for a corporate entity. For an offended Downton, such advertising skewered the true meaning of public space, not strictly because it was advertising - public spaces all over the world are littered with paid ads - but because it masqueraded as public dialog and coopted a public space pretending to be something it wasn't: graffiti intended to communicate a personal message, person to person. Downton, as I do, appreciates graffiti, especially political examples, as an often interesting expression of public ideas. Some nature-themed graffiti in Cape Town was discussed in this blog space by Pippin Anderson.

From two far sides of the issue, both pieces ask: what is the nature of "public" space? For both Das and Downton, it must boil down to the issue of collective ownership and control - not ownership of the individual sort, but in the sense of places in which people have access to spaces partially of their own design (or at least reflective of their desires), where they can gather (or not), speak (or not), commune (or not), and not be manipulated by forces that shade and obscure their true intent.

Public spaces must be places where individuals can be citizens - that is, inhabitants of the city and fully entitled and with access to its creation and benefits. The word "democratic" needs to be at the core of any description of public space - of the activities that occur there, and as a driver for its creation and ongoing maintenance.

Image 1: Some real graffiti in Melbourne, expressing a political sentiment in a public space. You may object to graffiti as a form of expression, but it is the public having a say. Photo by Paul Downton. Image 2 caption: Newspaper clippings about the struggle for public participation in Mumbai beach development.

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