Why public spaces are important for democracy

The one big thing that I missed during the lockdown, was my Wednesday afternoon run in Emmarentia Botanical Gardens. The park with its winding footpaths and open fields and secret corners.

When the park opened again, I jogged down my lockdown load with absolute glee.

The park is full of soaked dogs and sporadic turds, where one can do a quick stop on the playground, or test your skills on the outdoor gym. Or one can simply watch the latest wedding procession memorising the day in photos in the park, or listen to the laughter of children, where free-styling is enjoyed by a diversity of people.

Sometimes there are music festivals. Art exhibitions. Expressions of community. And if you sit still on a bench for half an hour, you will see a diversity of people doing a range of different things, something that you might not be confronted with otherwise.

Public parks play an important role in society as spaces of democracy, and it important that we guard these public spaces jealously. And these spaces need to be truly public, not spaces on private property (such as the V&A Waterfront ) open to the public, controlled by the owners.

In Emmarentia park there are some ground rules decided by a democratically elected council, but through interaction with others, some of the rules are also socially negotiated. It shows that democracy is not only political democracy, contested in political spaces. It also has a spatial element to it – in ensuring that there is enough public spaces to do democracy.

My favourite part in Emmarentia park. Or one of my favourite parts
My favourite part in Emmarentia park. Or one of my favourite parts

During my jog the other morning I pondered, again, on Hannah Arendt’scomments about the Greek agora. The Greek agora was the central meeting place for all of Athens. Social, commercial, city-state administration – all took place in the agora. The rectangular law court was in the middle, surrounded by a low wall so that people that are busy with other activities can peer in. There were various other spaces where people could observe the goings-on in the agora while not being in the agora.

Spaces like the agora is important for democracy because it allows for space where people can consider views other than their own. These public spaces, to follow from Aristotle, allows for the awareness of difference, a place where diverse people converse and intermingle in everyday life. Not only diverse in the sense of identity (race, gender, class) but also diverse in the actions, the things that people are doing. For Aristotle, this difference was important because if people were accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu, people will not act violently when they are challenged with something that they are familiar with. An open space like the agora will allow for differencing views and conflicting interests to interact.

In South Africa, we are increasingly closing down public spaces. We build home estates where the public is kept out at the gate (and in some instances even told how to move in the estate). We have boomed areas. These estates are often homogenous communities where we trade the possibility for our diversity interaction for the feeling of safety (which safety is questioned).

Malls swallowed the grocery stores from the community, where it was tucked between the post office and the police office, and place it next to just another chain store. People and shops are being transplanted from the streets to these malls where we all walk like consumer robots, ticking off lists in order to just leave as soon as possible.

Not all public places will foster diversity and dialogue, especially not in South Africa where the Apartheid project was all about spatial segregation. Many of the public spaces, on the local level, will still be fairly homogenous. But it contains the possibility.

In a sense, the public space is a political space by just being public and holding the space for the diversity of the public to emerge. It allows for dialogue, observation, and at times, protest. This is not new.

If we think about pivotal moments in history, it took place in the streets. Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. The Purple Rain protest against Apartheid in Green Market Square. The Egyptian revolution taking place on Tahrir Square.

Some of the political engagement is not always grandiose and pivotal but is still important for everyday encounters of a diversity of people.

A small public ”library” in the public park.
A small public ”library” in the public park.

For instance, in Cape Town, Sea Point Promenade is an example of a public open space that holds the space for multi-cultural interaction and was acknowledged as an important place for democracy in a court case. The court prevented a luxury hotel being built there also for this reason. The importance of the public spaces for our democracy should not be ignored.

In the time in South Africa where we are fed sanitised or amplified versions of reality, it is important that we cherish the spaces that hold the possibility of interacting with people who are different from us, and who do things differently from us. Whether it is by direct interaction with such people, or just by observing.

If not, we are going to take the conflicts and the handling of difference to the private spheres that are not democratic, often governed by rules made by corporations. Private spaces have proven unable to deal with this diversity, and in fact, tend to create more homogenous spaces in the process.

When these private spaces are homogenised, we can choose not to confront diversity. And this might be one of the biggest dangers for our democracy project.