Context 167 - March 2021

22 C O N T E X T 1 6 7 : M A R C H 2 0 2 1 SAMANTHA IRVINE The revival of the public square The intellectual discourse of the public sphere is alive and well. To engage with it, you just have to get out to the public square, as the experience of Toronto shows. In 2018 the American writer and liberal commen- tator Franklin Foer wrote ‘The Death of the Public Square’ for The Atlantic magazine. The article opens with an anecdote: Foer types ‘What is God?’ into Google and wades through the results, finding little of value. The question, Foer writes, ‘has inspired some of the finest writing in the history of Western civilisation’. Yet rather than Maimonides or Martin Luther, Google proffers the American evangelist Billy Graham.This, for Foer, is evidence that the public sphere—the key venue for delibera- tion, debate, the acquisition of knowledge and the formulation of opinions—is dying. When the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas originated the concept of the public sphere in the 1960s, he described how delibera- tive democracy emerged in the cafes and literary societies of 18th-century Europe. Habermas’s conception of the public sphere was rooted in place ; the locales and institutions where people met, beyond the reach of church and state, were essential to the free exchange of ideas. Today we spend far more time connecting with others via the internet than in person. So, it is all too easy to think, following Foer, that the public sphere has migrated online, where it is being extinguished by search engine optimisation. The public sphere is, however, still vital in the same venue that hosted it 300 years ago: the public realm, and especially public plazas, squares and parks.These spaces have always been critical to democracy, and have enjoyed renewed importance as places of protest, celebration and mourning in recent years. Barack Obama’s supporters flooded public squares when he was elected. People across the world reacted to Donald Trump’s election in the same manner, if not with the same purpose.The Occupy Protests poignantly demonstrated the critical value of public spaces to democracy. And in 2020 the public realm remained a key venue for protest and celebration, particularly in the fight against racial injustice, while also becoming a crucial place to remedy pandemic-related loneliness. Municipal governments have prioritised the public realm over the same period. New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Montreal, Vancouver, Detroit and Toronto are among the North American cities that have reinvested in their public parks and plazas. Converging structural circumstances incited the trend: cities began repopulating in the 1970s and are now flush with revenue; the exodus of urban industry left derelict spaces behind; and much 19th- century public infrastructure is beyond its use- ful life. Perhaps most important, dense cities Toronto’s Sugar Beach, reinvented as a public place (Photo: Industryous Photography)