How Mayors Can Help Design Public Spaces That Are More Welcoming for All – Next100
Commentary   Housing + Design

How Mayors Can Help Design Public Spaces That Are More Welcoming for All

Not everyone feels welcome in the public spaces where policy decisions get made. If we want more equitable, just, and inclusive decision making in government, it’s time for us to take a fresh look at how we design these spaces that impact us all.

“We’re the level of government that people see, touch, and feel, and they want practical solutions… City Hall is where it all happens.”— Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown

Local policies about designing public space have been critical throughout the pandemic. While these policies have opened up new possibilities in streets, plazas, and parks, there is a big opportunity to support more of this design thinking in the public spaces where local policy decisions get made—city hall. If we want more equitable, just, and inclusive decision-making in government, how we design city halls matters. Are there tall fences with spikes surrounding it? How are seats arranged in the chambers? Whose portraits hang on the walls?

These buildings are places where people meet with government staff and elected officials, like the mayor and city council. It’s in city hall where individuals, delegations, and community groups give input on a range of topics through council meetings and public hearings. These meetings lead to council motions, hirings, and decisions to pass or table certain laws that influence everything from transit and parks to housing and utilities. They can be havens of democracy, where people are welcomed to actively take part in shaping laws that impact their day-to-day lives. But for many people, these places are discouraging, even frightening to approach, and are often confusing to navigate.

In city halls across the country, newly elected mayors are putting together budgets following an infusion of the most substantial amount of federal aid local governments have ever seen. At the same time, “across the country, Americans are in the midst of a historic decline in public trust in government.” How can some of these dollars be used to make sure the public spaces where local policy decisions get made are welcoming for all?

It’s often said that a budget is a statement of values; less frequently is it noted that how we budget and use space in city hall shows us exactly who is valued. For new mayors, design represents a tremendous—and often overlooked—opportunity to use another tool to advance equity and inclusion.

It’s often said that a budget is a statement of values; less frequently is it noted that how we budget and use space in city hall shows us exactly who is valued. For new mayors, design represents a tremendous—and often overlooked—opportunity to use another tool to advance equity and inclusion.

The Power of Design

When we’re kids, we learn quickly how to “read the room.” The phrase usually means to be aware of who is around us but, in doing so, we also quite literally read the physical room. We look for signs and patterns that tell us, for example, how we should act and where we’re not welcome. Whether conscious of it or not, we read what New York-based architectural historian and critic Professor Thomas Mellins calls the “architectural vocabulary” of space. Like any vocabulary, it can be comfortingly inclusive to some while violently exclusive to others, just like a conversation you’re considering joining can sound inviting if it includes the names of food you grew up eating, but sound dangerous if it includes slurs about your racial identity. As Professor of Sociology Albert S. Fu writes in his publication, Can Buildings be Racist? A Critical Sociology of Architecture and the Built Environment, “buildings are different in that they are often less visible than racist stereotypes on a screen. As buildings do not audibly speak, dwellers of physical spaces are often unaware of how they influence or structure our behavior. In turn, the way buildings operate parallels the way color-blindness and ignorance perpetuate racism.” How a space is designed influences the power dynamics of who enters, how they move, how they feel, and what decisions they make.

The design of a building can impact a person’s heart rate and stress level. Imagine a poorly ventilated room with no plants and not much natural light. Now imagine that room is in the heart of your local government, where staff work daily and where policy decisions are made. Research by Harvard Healthy Buildings Program director Professor Joseph Allen has “found that people in properly ventilated buildings did twice as well on tests of cognitive performance and decision-making as those in poorly ventilated buildings.”

How a building is designed also influences power dynamics. Architect and chair of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Professor June Williamson’s research, “The Boston Federal Courthouse: Institutional Places and the National Face” shows how courthouse design, from the position of the witness box to the adversarial angles of the defense and prosecution, can influence how different people experience the law. Williamson highlights author Paul Goodman’s diagrams comparing the architecture and institutional organization of democratic legislatures from around the world. These diagrams show how seating arrangements facilitate different relationships between stakeholders. Details down to where the “public” sits and where the “chairman” sits can influence how governance happens. In the U.S. Senate, for example, the design of the space impacts what direction a senator is facing when they speak, which, in turn, influences the relationship between the Senate and the larger public. In her thesis, Williamson shows us that for a democracy to function, it’s critical to design our institutional places in a way that acknowledges being in a space that’s dynamic, holds friction and is responsible to many different publics.

Williamson warned us about this years before Donald Trump tried to throw our public spaces decades into the past. Donald Trump used his political power to support authoritarian, exclusionary, racist design practices. In 2020, Trump enacted an executive order he referred to as “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” It was the design version of Make America Great Again—an order that encouraged the federal government to revert back to styles popularized at a time when the people most impacted by policy decisions were not allowed to vote. The order valued classical and other “traditional architecture” over modernist designs. These spaces were designed in large part by and for white men. While the American Institute of Architects notes improvement, women and people of color still remain underrepresented in the field of architecture today. The same is true of the architects of our country’s laws: while the 117th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse it has been in history, it still is not representative of the country’s demographics. Trump’s policy valued what he deemed beautiful and inspirational: designs “command respect from the general public.” But what is a civic building supposed to look like, and who gets to make that decision? With public trust in government remaining low, are these designs helping or hurting? One of the goals for this architecture was to “command respect from the general public”—rather than command respect, how do we build trust? This executive order shows us just how powerful design can be in either building up or being a barrier to democracy.

The Harm That Comes from Excluding Communities from Decision-Making Spaces

There’s a long history of policies that have actively excluded communities from spaces of political power. For centuries, laws that actively segregated Americans by race—in their neighborhoods, their schools, their transportation—were considered and enacted in government buildings, in sessions paid for with public funds, and by policy makers who felt not only welcomed but empowered and justified in that space. Policies segregated the very buildings where legislation was passed. Sixty years ago, many city halls were still legally segregated spaces, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in all public accomodations, a term that includes government buildings. The legacies of these racist, authoritarian, hyper-polarizing policies very much exist, etched into our spaces today. Equitable policy solutions to these discriminatory norms and practices come when we change who has access to these decision making spaces. Design can help support decision making processes for all with outcomes that benefit not just the people who have historically, classically, traditionally, held elected positions of power.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an example of a civil rights law that profoundly influenced accessible design in government buildings across the country. Architects, urban planners, and urban designers Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore describe in “The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion” how “On March 12, 1990, more than 60 individuals with physical disabilities abandoned their mobility devices (wheelchairs, crutches etc.) and proceeded to crawl up the 83 stone steps of the U.S. Capitol. ‘I’ll take all night if I have to!’ declared Jennifer Keelan, a second grader with cerebral palsy and the young activist making the climb.” When President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law, he stated, “let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” However, while the ADA passed, these stone steps, these walls, are still here, and often historically preserved: testament to the fact that “unimaginative spaces are symptomatic of an antiquated, ableist approach to architecture” and government.

What does this look like on the ground? Long ramps and backdoor entrances for elevator access for starters, making the places where policies get made harder to access for a large part of the public. Instead, we have to build spaces differently from the start. While federal civil rights laws like the ADA have been passed to ensure the most basic level of physical access to government buildings for individuals with disabilities, this is not enough to build truly inclusive space. We must do more to center communities who continue to be marginalized from places of political decision-making.

“[City Hall] looks like it’s for rich white people… people who have money… looks like you may have to pay… You have to be someone of ‘importance’ to be in those spaces.”

Last month, I had the privilege of speaking with two New Yorkers who helped me understand their experience and their communities’ experiences with New York City Hall and local government. When asked to describe City Hall, abolitionist, author, and policy entrepreneur at Next100 Vidal Guzman said, “It’s just a building well-guarded.” Activist and former policy entrepreneur Michael “Zaki” Smith noted he “never really paid attention to City Hall. Like, I almost really didn’t know where the hell City Hall was… [it] wasn’t a place that represented me in any way, or my voice, or anything I had to say would even be a part of.” Smith went on to describe how “[City Hall] looks like it’s for rich white people… people who have money… looks like you may have to pay… You have to be someone of ‘importance’ to be in those spaces.” Both Guzman and Smith highlight how the architecture of City Hall can make some of the most impacted people feel unwelcome in the spaces where policy decisions get made.

Designing for democracy has a long way to go, but this new year, with new federal funds, brings large opportunities to mayors across the country. Boston’s new Mayor Michelle Wu has shared her own similar experiences. In her remarks after taking the oath of office, Mayor Wu recalled how, “The first time I set foot in Boston City Hall, I felt invisible, swallowed up by the maze of echoing concrete hallways, intimidated by the checkpoints and looming government counters, reminded of why my immigrant family tried to stay away from spaces like this.” Mayor Wu goes on to describe how “When we make City Hall more accessible, we are all raised up.”

While virtual City Hall meetings grew during the pandemic, there was some hope that this would itself improve accessibility and inclusion; that making it possible for people to participate without traveling to a specific location would lower the barrier to entry for more people. However, reporter Sarah Holder, in her article “Are Virtual City Meetings Better for Democracy?” describes early research showing that the trends in demographics for virtual meeting attendance are similar to the trends for in-person meetings. In both cases, the demographics of those who attend do not reflect the population of the city. Holder highlights a 2018 study by political scientists Katherine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, and David Glick from Boston University’s Initiative on Cities which showed that people who participated in local government meetings were “older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, homeowners… [and] overwhelmingly oppose new housing construction.” During the pandemic, this hasn’t changed. While providing virtual space is one critical design tool for democracy, it requires WiFi, technology, and an understanding and comfort with video calls, which create technological and financial barriers to entry into the democratic process.

Using Policy to Shape Better Public Spaces

As part of the recently published book City Hall by Arthur Drooker, New York based-architectural historian and writer Professor Thomas Mellins describes how “City halls house the realm of government most likely to have a direct effect on the lives of constituents [and] a successfully designed city hall must… project a sense of communality and civility that extends beyond a particular municipality’s requirements.” How we design our city halls matters, especially now.

Designing for democracy has a long way to go; but this new year, new federal funds, for example through the American Rescue Plan, bring large opportunities to mayors across the country. So much is at stake this year as we try to move out of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what are some examples of successful designs that local governments can build on to facilitate participatory decision making processes?

Mayors can make sure city halls are reachable by public transportation, to ensure residents from around the city can get to them. City halls should have welcoming entryways with clear signage translated into multiple languages that helps invite people in and ensure they know where to go—that they are encouraged to go there. City halls should have updated community boards, both physically and virtually. The building and surrounding public space should be a welcoming place of gathering, sharing, and play, including artwork and architecture by people who reflect the diversity of the city. City Hall should have public WiFi, comfortable seating, gender-neutral bathrooms, spaces for food and drink, and nursing pods for breastfeeding and pumping. Mayors can work with local residents and civic designers to research different ways people engage with the outside and inside of the building, informing furniture design proposals to promote democracy.

For years, amazing people in local government have been designing for participatory democracy in challenging, seemingly inflexible, but public spaces. We need to learn from them. Having the honor of connecting with and working alongside phenomenal people passionate about local government, I’ve heard stories of how two chairs and a water bubbler turned into a cafe in Boston City Hall; and how an underutilized room became a makerspace in Durham City Hall. More recently, we have the example of the removal of a seven-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson in the chamber of New York City’s City Hall, a statue that had been there for more than 100 years and celebrated a man who enslaved people. We need every city doing this, and we need to do more. The future of our democracy depends on it. As cities across the country work to build back better, some of these efforts—including the federal relief funds available to local governments—must be used to make sure the public spaces where policy decisions get made are welcoming for all. As Michael “Zaki” Smith says, “it’s your birthright to be here [in City Hall]. This land and these spaces are yours too. Your voice and your existence matters, really.”

About the Author

Suryani Dewa Ayu Housing + Design

Suryani (Sury) Dewa Ayu is an advocate for creating spaces of belonging and inclusion—particularly democratic spaces—that center historically marginalized communities. At Next100, Sury focuses on leveraging local and international learnings about civic design to help foster democratic practice and improve policy outcomes for underrepresented communities on a federal level. Sury draws on her experience as a civic designer, having developed a program to hire and empower local teen civic designers to propose design recommendations for city government.

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