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People, Power, and Public Spaces

What the privatization of public spaces has to do with our likelihood of taking to the streets.

Wisconsin capitol

The Wisconsin capitol building was designed to encourage civic encounters, according to the Project for Public Spaces: "Situated in a square at the heart of downtown Madison, this beautiful building is actually a major intersection in town—the place where the pedestrian extensions of major streets meet. It actually offers the shortest walking route between the University of Wisconsin campus and the commercial heart of downtown Madison."

Photo by Mike Martens

The influence of the new digital commons in democratic uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain has been chronicled at length in news reports from the Middle East, with Facebook, Twitter and other social media winning praise as dictator-busters.

But the importance of a much older form of commons in these revolts has earned scant attention—the public spaces where citizens rally to voice their discontent, show their power and ultimately articulate a new vision for their homelands. To celebrate their victory over the Mubarak regime, for example, protesters in Cairo jubilantly returned to Tahrir Square, where the revolution was born, to pick up trash.

It’s the same story all over the Middle East. In Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, people express their aspirations and face bloody reprisals in Tripoli’s Green Square and Martyr’s Square. In Bahrain, they boldly march in Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama. In Yemen, protests have taken place in public spaces near the university in Sanaa, which students renamed Tahrir Square. Kept out of the central Revolution Square in Tehran by the repressive government, Iranian dissidents gather in Valiasr Square and Vanak Sqaure.

Last week in Tunisia, the name of the main square in Tunis was changed to honor Mohammad Bouazizi, an unlicensed street vendor whose suicide in December in response to government harassment sparked the revolution that toppled the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The course of recent history was rewritten by events happening in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as dissidents ousted an oppressive regime in December 1989. Those protests were inspired in part by events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that seized the world’s imagination earlier that year when democracy activists unsuccessfully challenged the power of China’s dictatorship.

The state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, where thousands of workers now protest the governor’s fierce attacks on collective bargaining rights, represents another case of a public commons becoming a staging ground for political resistance. The capitol, which sits right in the heart of downtown Madison, was named by Project for Public Spaces as one of the great public spaces of the world. “This is truly the town square that early Americans imagined as the crux of democracy,” the PPS website explains.

The people rallying behind public sector union workers at the Capitol are actually protected by the Wisconsin state constitution, which forbids the legislature from denying public access to the building when it is in session.

The people rallying behind public sector union workers at the Capitol are actually protected by the Wisconsin state constitution, which forbids the legislature from denying public access to the building when it is in session. (State law does permit capitol groundskeepers to clear the building in an emergency, presumably on orders of the governor—but those groundskeepers are also presumably members of the same union the governor wants to crush.)

Times Square, photo by Ed YourdonReclaim Your Streets: How to Create Safe and Social Pedestrian Plazas

This all shows 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. An alarming trend in American life is the privatization of our public realm. As corporate-run shopping malls replaced downtowns and main streets as the center of action, we lost some of our public voice. You can’t organize a rally, hand out flyers, or circulate a petition in a shopping mall without the permission of the management, which will almost certainly say no because they don’t want to distract shoppers’ attention from the merchandise. That’s why you see few benches or other gathering spots inside malls. The result is that our ability to even discuss the issues of the day (or any other subject) with our fellow citizens is limited.

Of course, public spaces enrich our lives in many ways beyond protests. Local commons become the sites of celebrations, festivals, art events, memorial services, and other expressions of community.

With no place to voice our views as citizens, do we become more passive about what happens to our country and our future?

The moment when I first became aware of the importance of public spaces was when the Minnesota Twins won their first ever World Series in 1987. I did not have tickets to the game, but gathered hopefully with thousands of others outside the stadium in Minneapolis to share in the joy of the victory. When the Twins won the game, thousands more poured out of the ballpark into the streets and we all marched to…where? Minneapolis has no downtown square or landmark gathering place so we milled around the streets for a while—an unsatisfying way to celebrate a World Series championship. If it had been the Red Sox, everyone would have headed for the Boston Common (site of protests and public gatherings for three centuries, from a 200-person protest of food shortages in 1713 to a 100,000-strong march against the Vietnam War in 1969). We weren’t so lucky.

I’ve often wondered if this lack of a central commons in Minneapolis and most other American communities somehow inhibits our civic expression. With no place to voice our views as citizens, do we become more passive about what happens to our country and our future? I don’t know the answer, but I imagine Hosni Mubarak wishes he had built a shopping mall in Tahrir Square.


Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jay is a contributing editor of National Geographic Traveler, Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces, and co-editor of OnTheCommons.org. Editor of Utne Reader magazine for 15 years, he is the author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and The Great Neighborhood Book.

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