America Needs A Tahrir Square

The U.S. has let the public square become a metaphor. That can’t be good for our democracy.

Maidan Square in Kiev. Taksim Square in Istanbul. Tahrir Square in Cairo. Recent democratic movements around the globe have risen, or crashed and burned, on the hard pavement of vast urban public squares. The media largely has focused on the role of social media technology in these movements. But too few observers have considered the significance of the empty public spaces themselves.

Comedian Jon Stewart was one who got it. He quipped that if he ever becomes a dictator, he’d "get rid of these [bleep]ing squares" Why? Because "nothing good happens for dictators" in such places.

In the U.S., children are taught that the public square is essential to democracy. Here, the phrase "public square" is practically synonymous with free political speech. But these days "public square" is more likely to be a metaphor for media in all its forms than it is a reference to an actual, concrete place.

Maidan Square, Kiev Ukraine via Mikhail Markovskiy / Shutterstock

For at least a generation, urban planners and sociologists have bemoaned the decline of public space in American life. While older towns and cities, particularly in the Northeast and South, may have been built around a commons or town square, most newer cities in the West—often planned with the automobile in mind—were designed without town centers. The explicit intention of many planners was to give people their own private spaces rather than provide opportunities to come together in public.

"We stopped building public squares in the post-war years also in part because of the fear of who would use them," says Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. "And those we do have, we don’t use very much."

If public squares are essential to democracy, is their relative absence in modern American life bad for our democracy—or a sign that we’re not as democratic as we imagine?

I can’t help but think of that over-the-top Cadillac television commercial that features a tightly wound, barrel-chested, blond dude who exalts the "crazy, driven" American work ethic while disdaining those "other countries" whose people "stroll home," "stop by the café," and "take August off." The commercial, while clearly a caricature, does manage to capture a macho disdain that Americans—including myself—are sometimes guilty of exhibiting toward non-productive time, the hours and days that are not filled with goal-oriented activity.

That bias toward filling time also applies to our collective approach to space. Think of the hyper-commercialized, sensory overload that is New York’s Times Square or the clutter of billboards that line L.A’s Sunset Strip. Whether it’s a shopping mall or a new park, planners harbor a strong bias toward filling spaces with everything from vendor stalls to matching outdoor furniture. Places, they tell us, can’t just lie there empty; they must be "activated" by amenities and organized programs.

It’s tempting to pin this desire for distraction on our aggressive consumer culture or on an ingrained American emphasis on action over repose. But the causes are likely even more far reaching. Herbert Muschamp, the late architecture critic for the New York Times, felt that "horror vacui"—the fear of emptiness—kept Americans from creating and enjoying open public spaces. But empty spaces, he argued, are the kind of places—think Japanese gardens—that encourage us to collect our thoughts and ponder new ones.

Image: Taksim Square in Istanbulvia Prometheus72 / Shutterstock

Common public places are also ideal—maybe even necessary—for the performance of quintessential democratic behaviors. As in Maidan, Taksim, and Tahrir squares, they’re a stage for the expression of political opinions. But they’re also a space that facilitates the everyday social interaction of citizens whose paths may otherwise never cross.

In capital cities, such spaces are where groups of citizens can make political claims and demonstrate the scale of their displeasure within close proximity of governmental power. But everywhere else, diverse and open public places that are not the domain of any particular social group or stratum are the physical embodiment and symbolic expressions of a diverse citizenry peacefully inhabiting a common geographic place. They connect us to democracy not through an interaction with the government but by encouraging us to interact with one another.

In Washington, protests are increasingly scripted and controlled by organized interest groups rather arising organically out of broad public sentiment. Nationally, the decline of public space is part of a troublesome broader trend of Americans choosing to socialize with and live near people very much like themselves. It follows, then, that a fragmenting country whose constituent parts are increasingly keeping to themselves would abandon the public square, both figuratively and literally.

So, yes, the decline of public space in America is bad for democratic culture. Balancing the parts and the whole has always been the most challenging aspect of the American experiment. And if we want our democracy to function and thrive, we need to learn to live with and negotiate social differences and competing interests.

It won’t solve all our democracy’s problems, but restoring spaces where Americans can interact across ideological, religious, racial, and class lines would be a promising start.

This article was republished with permission from Zocalo Public Square. Read the original here.

[Image: Tahrir Square Mosa'ab Elshamy for Getty Images]

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  • Maybe we don't use public squares b/c despite the flaws, our system no where near as screwed up as Egypt's or Mexico's or Ukraine's. Oh, and remember Occupy Wall Street? Yeah, neither do I. Besides, and this goes for every country: the government we get, we deserve.

  • Daniel Moore

    Wow, so because a massive, nation-wide protest wasn't nation-wide or popular enough for you, we should... what, give up?

    Alright, pack it in, we're better than Somalia so we better give up.

    I like to think we can hold ourselves to a higher standard, and actually become a stronghold of freedom and democratic principles, rather than the oligarchy we have become.

  • First of all, the US is not a democracy. It is a constitutional representative republic. This is a very important functional distinction.

  • Daniel Moore

    No, actually, it's not. Not really. It's a quibble.

    While you're technically correct, you're not actually adding anything to the discussion, you're distracting from it. We simplify things because quibbling over the exact definition doesn't always matters. I'm gonna guess that's what the author was doing. Most people refer to the USA as a Democracy because it's built on Democratic principles. Most people know full well it has always been a Republic on the national level, but even that's not the whole story.

    Direct democracy is present in every town millage and many state initiatives. Many of the most-talked-about laws up for debate in my home state, for instance, were put their by petition drives and are resolved by popular vote.

  • Guillaume Corradino

    Where do you see direct democracy in action? Switzerland uses direct democracy at the local level, but that is the only example i know. What you describe is representative democracy, which seems the most practical way to do things.