Politics on the Plaza

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

An admirable book called City Squares (Catie Marron, Ed.) was published last year. I was glad to see more attention being paid to this topic but, I must admit, a little disappointed by the book’s main thrust. Out of 18 writers who contributed chapters on “the spirit and significance of squares around the world” at least one third focused on the political demonstrations, sometimes violent, that took place in recent decades in Taksim Square, Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Euromaidan Square, and elsewhere.

Of course it is encouraging that people around the world are expressing their desire for democracy. But that comes at a time when democratic countries seem to be losing their heritage of open discussion and dialogue among equals on the square. We no longer fully appreciate how essential urban squares (piazzas, plazas) are for facilitating a civilized exchange of opinions and divergent points of view. This was, indeed, the essence of the ancient Greek agora, crucible of democracy. It was, as Wycherley describes, “the constant resort of all citizens, and it did not spring to life on special occasions but was the daily scene of social life, business and politics”.[i] It was a combination of marketplace and Hyde Park Corner, a center for teaching and for gossip, for recreation and for religion, for entertainment and for public demonstrations.

The Greeks were proud of the public dialogue on the agora, and attributed to it their unique, democratic form of government. As Thucydides said: “Our citizens attend both to public and private duties, and do not allow absorption in their own various affairs to interfere with their knowledge of the city’s. We … decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, holding, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed.”[ii]

During the Middle Ages across Europe hundreds of new towns were founded. At the heart of each was a well-defined, multi-functional marketplace that guaranteed a charter of self-government and a democratic city government. Urban life and civic engagement flourished. Still today, on the central square, neighborhood square, or market place political discussions take place in cities such as Padova, Ascoli Piceno, Bologna, Vicenza, Salamanca, and Freiburg.

Alas, too many of the most beautiful European squares that once fostered civic engagement and democratic dialogue – Bruges’ Markt, Venice’s Piazza San Marco, Prague’s Old Town Square… but there are too many to mention – have been expropriated by the tourist industry as an income-generating bauble. The tourist hordes push out local inhabitants and prevent civic engagement.

And in the US, the most democratic nation on earth (?) there was never a real dedication to the idea of free and democratic dialogue in the public realm. US cities were not laid out around a square designed to form the “heart” of the community. Worse, the vast swathes of sprawling suburbs, where the majority of the population now lives, were laid out with a seemingly deliberate policy of isolating families, and segregating socio-economic groups. No wonder the US is such a divided country. We never have the opportunity – even in the best of our city centers and certainly not in our suburbs – to take part in a political discussion with people whose experience, values, and opinions are different from our own. At the 54th IMCL Conference on Public Places we shall discuss what it takes to create squares that foster democratic dialogue and civic engagement.

Today, more than ever before, we need hospitable neighborhood plazas and main squares where a truly democratic dialogue can evolve.


[i]  Wycherley, R. E. How the Greeks Built Cities. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. 1969. pp. 55-56.

[ii]  Thucydides, Pericles’ funeral oration for Athenians who died in the Peloponnesian War, in Wycherley, ibid.