From the monuments of Washington to the squares of London to the parks of Hong Kong, tens of thousands of protesters have captured the world’s attention in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. It is indeed a historic and unique moment, one that reveals a type of social change that has always been occurring — albeit to varying degrees — in our cities. Public space is performing its primordial function: revealing fault lines in our society and helping to reconcile them. This is a particularly important activity today, as the growth of digital communication is leading to increased polarization.
Public space has a unique characteristic that is not found online: inevitability. When we walk down a city street and witness homelessness, stumble on a sidewalk, or even jump to dodge a bicycle, we are experiencing a contested, conflicted space. Realities we would rather avoid are on full display. The unsettling quality of public space is exactly why we need it. Streets, parks, and squares are sites of togetherness, the only places where all (or at least most) of a society converges. People of different backgrounds and beliefs have no choice but to share the same sidewalks.
Conversely, digital worlds are subject to a homophily trap. The Internet encourages us to algorithmically filter out individuals and ideas that challenge our comfort zone, trapping us within ideological echo chambers that are worsening political polarization. Social media easily connects like-minded individuals but rarely starts those conversations that a functioning community needs. COVID-19 has made matters worse; the pandemic is increasing our reliance on the digital world and making our social connections even more narrow and homogenous. While the Internet may connect us to our close friends and family, it cuts us off from the chance to encounter diverse people and ideas.
Physical space, on the other hand, is an antidote to this condition. It forces us, by proximity, to engage with diverse communities. MIT’s Senseable City Lab’s collaborative research with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm uses geo-tagged Twitter data to measure where and when individuals of different backgrounds come together in Stockholm. Results show how the layout of the city is critical to overcoming ethnic and socioeconomic isolation. Some of Stockholm’s neighborhoods are more diverse than others, but in each of them, squares and public spaces perform a key role in facilitating interaction between different groups.
Such a process is not always idyllic. For as long as public spaces have been a site of social mixing, they have also been battlefields for a range of social and political conflicts. From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, disaffected populations have taken to the streets — the one place where they cannot be ignored. Today’s protests have been overwhelmingly and admirably peaceful, despite police-state tactics and fringe vandalism in US cities like Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. Similar moments in the past have been marred by violence and repression.
The harshest consequences often occur in spaces that were flawed from the outset: those where people were long prevented from mixing on equal footing. If we remove such obstacles as residential segregation and discriminatory law enforcement, we can make public spaces venues for understanding and reconciliation. To ensure what French sociologist Henri Lefebvre called the “right to the city,” we must begin by setting the city right.
Along with the right policies, we also need citizens willing to engage with one another. In Stockholm, one of the most effective social integrators seems to be the KTH University district, standing on a small hill in the northern part of the city. Diverse students and staff who reside all over the greater metropolitan region come together in a shared physical campus, and in so doing they create an experiential, intellectual, and emotional community. Without openness to dialogue and confrontation, even the most open public spaces have limits.
Public spaces are a vital piece of urban infrastructure. They allow citizens to bring about a collective elaboration that cannot be ignored. They leverage the inevitability of public space to assemble the pieces of a social discourse that has been shattered and scattered in digital space. Urban demonstrations are the triumph of the city. As Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti wrote: “In the streets, arm in arm, we are so much more than two.”
Carlo Ratti teaches at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is a founding partner at design office Carlo Ratti Association.