For and by the people

By Tashya Dalen

Alexis De Tocqueville warned in the mid-19th century that American individualism would eventually drive us to retreat from public life.

“Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may mix among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in his mind a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society.” [1]

The concepts of transparency and participation, combined to form one of the five principles Design-Lancaster advocates for, have the potential to work against such a social malaise, encouraging civic engagement while also helping to create more usable and valued places in our landscape. At the same time, this type of democratic process is not instantly realizable.  David Brain, sociologist at the New College of Florida insightfully reflects,

“Designers and planners generally need to work with a more sophisticated understanding of the conditions and possibilities of democratic politics. We need to get past the naïve notion of democracy that makes us think that a process becomes more democratic simply by including more people in the meetings. In practical terms, communities need to build civic capacity around an understanding of the complex forms of human settlement, not simply as the reflex of market activity or the unintended consequence of regulatory policy, but as a clear and purposeful reflection of a democratically constructed vision. Designers and planners need to face up to the political challenge implied in such a goal.” [2]

The argument for transparency and participation in design rests on a growing body of research that began in earnest in the mid-20th century especially as it relates to public space.

Central Park, 1962, W. Whyte

Jane Jacobs, freelance writer turned urban activist in response to modernism’s autocratic urban planning, argued for these principles in her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). A few years later, William Whyte conceived of the Street Life Project, spending 16 years observing and documenting human behavior in public space throughout New York City. He published his findings in, The Social Life of Small Public Spaces (1980), reasoning that in as much as city-dwellers were instrumental in enlivening and inhabiting urban spaces, they should also be instrumental in making design decisions in the neighborhoods they know so well.

Jacobs and Whyte inspired the founding of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in 1975, a non-profit planning, design and educational organization that among other things has coined the term placemaking as:

“a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. . . looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place.”

The diagram below is one of the tools PPS uses to guide communities through this process. The inner circle describes the four key attributes of a place. The middle ring represents intangible, experiential qualities, and the outer lists measurable factors related to each attribute.

Place Diagram, PPS

One nearby example of transparency, participation and the rise of civic engagement can be seen in Philadelphia’s “Civic Vision for the Central Delaware” developed by PennPraxis and the William Penn Foundation.

Within the course of a year, they formed an Advisory Group, led Riverfront Walks, held Community Forums, a Design Workshop and conducted further collaboration and outreach.  Though there is still much work to be done to realize the recommended design concepts, Harris Steinberg of PennPraxis has found that the Vision “provides a framework for growth that can help [them] find common ground.”


[1] Democracy in America, 2nd volume, 1840.

[2] Democracy and Urban Design: The Transect as Civic Renewal, Places, vol 18:1, 2006, p. 18.

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1 Comment

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One response to “For and by the people

  1. Fascinating to think of the tension between American independence and civic life. I hope we can be more community minded, but I would see this happening first in simpler issues than design. Or maybe I don’t know enough about architecture and design – I hope to learn more.

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