Reclaiming urban spaces critical for democracy

Published: Friday 15 June 2007

at the beginning of the 20th century, the Swiss Canton of Graubunden banned all cars from its streets. The canton of Uri clamped a similar ban, a year after. The bans might seem ante-diluvian in this age of auto-intoxication. But the action of the Swiss cantons remains salutary for a number of reasons. For one, it reminds us that our romance with cars was never an untroubled engagement.

More importantly, the car bans remind us about putting a value to public spaces. Historically, public spaces were central to people's lives--specially the urban poor. Living in cramped and grimy houses, most had little choice but to use public spaces. Walking the streets was their way to get around. Food and household goods could be purchased at many a street corner and businesses displayed their wares outside. Parks were the only places for kids to play.

But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars have taken over the streets. Telephones, television and e-mails have transformed our lives, leading many to withdraw from the public realm. Public spaces got neglected as city developers ripped through neighbourhoods to accommodate the car. Today shopping centres and malls with their oceans of on-site parking, dominate the retail and housing industries.

The decline of public places, however, is more than a matter of nostalgia. Public spaces are favourite places for people to meet, talk, sit, play, eat, gallivant and feel part of a community. They are critical to democracy.

Social identities are formed to a significant extent by public appearances and relationships, and although they can also happen in private or commercial settings, there is something different about life in the free, non-instrumental sanctuary of the park or the sidewalk, where one is a citizen and not a consumer.

A democratic society requires settings where we can meet and discuss matters critically. This cannot happen in modern malls and cafes. Here the balance is skewed away from the needs of many users, towards the prerogatives of one commercial entity the stores established around the space.

Instead of being designed for ease of use and movement, these places are designed to direct people, limiting, as much as possible, their activities to consuming. These activities are of course necessary--some might even say pleasurable--but are very limited compared to the creative potential of really good urban commons.

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