I have just begun reading a new book by John Parkinson, Democracy and Public Space (I came across it here). It combines theorising about key concepts – democracy, public space – with comparative analysis of the quality of democratic public spaces in major cities around the world. Parkinson argues that “democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world. It also argues that in many respects the availability of space for democratic performance is under threat, and that by overlooking the need for such space – or arguing against that need – we run the risk of undermining some important conditions of democracy in the modern world.”
That might not sound like an unusual argument to geographers and urbanists – it is common enough to find people in these fields arguing about the continuing importance of ‘real’ physical space for democratic politics. Parkinson’s argument is directed at democratic and political theorists, but opens up a dialogue with spatial disciplines too. He has some insightful comments about the limits of spatial theory when it comes to thinking about public space and democracy – he identifies two blind spots:
“The first is that all sorts of public activity are often treated as categorical and normative equivalents: that encountering members of the public in playful settings is normatively the same as engaging in binding collective decision-making, for example. The second is that the idea of democracy is either taken as a background assumption not worth exploring or is taken to be something roughly equivalent to freedom. In some work, this generates unintended irony. There are writers who decry the privatization of public space on the grounds that people can no longer ‘do what they want’ in it, which merely pits one liberal individualist claim against another without providing any reasons to choose between them. I shall spend some time in this book providing reasons – liberal reasons – to choose between some competing claims on the use of space but also argue that, for the most part, democracy is the means we use to make such choices, not something to which we can appeal to make the choice for us.”
I think he is pretty much spot on in both respects. His book also spends some time thinking through just what is ‘public’ about public spaces, what sort of value it is that defines publicness – it might be accessibility, or use of common resources, or common impact, or public role performance.
It will be interesting to see if the book gets any traction in geography-land – Parkinson’s conception of space is probably not wobbly enough, his mode of theorising about democracy and public space probably too ‘liberal’, his use of comparative empirics a little too conventional. These are all things I like about the book. Above all, it is a slow exposition of a performative theory of democracy that centres on practices, and spaces, of claim-making, and it takes time to think through the meaning of concepts and how they can be cashed-out empirically.