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Key Takeaways from France-Canada Dialogue: Democratic Spaces

The Institute for Canadian Citizenship and 6 Degrees partnered with the Cultural Service at the Consulate of France in Toronto to present the France-Canada Dialogue: Democratic Spaces, discussing the contemporary relationship between public spaces and democracy. 6 Degrees is also grateful for the support of Knowledge Partners Canadian Urban Institute and 8 80 Cities.

The built environment is where we live. It impacts our everyday lives: how we interact, work, travel, shop, and more. It represents the public square in which we gather, debate, and join forces and voices as members of a community.

From an increasing privatization of space to the realities of COVID-19, we discussed how our ability to gather is changing, and how our shared spaces need to change for our communities to remain strong.

We examined how racist, classist, and inequitable infrastructure and planning affect our day-to-day lives, and our ability to participate fully in civic life. Our collective needs are changing. So what kind of built environment do we need to facilitate the best of our democracy in this new era?

Featuring:

– Remarks by the Ambassador of France to Canada, Kareen Rispal

– Moderator: Amanda O’Rourke, executive director of 8 80 Cities (Canada)

Speakers:

Habon Ali, global health student and community builder (Somalia/Canada)

Michael Redhead Champagne, an award-winning community organizer and public speaker (Shamattawa First Nation/Winnipeg/Canada) 

Angèle De Lamberterie, geographer and urban planner; development manager, Plateau Urbain (France)

Yoann Sportouch, urban planner; editor-in-chief of the online magazine Lumières de la Ville; founder of the urban planning agency LDV Studio Urbain (France)

Key Takeaways 

Public spaces are essential to the democratic process. Public spaces act as an intermediary between the public and the state. They are where we gather to voice our views, raise our complaints, and work collectively towards solutions. It is in those spaces that society can come together, but only if they are accessible to all. While these spaces can and do exist digitally, they must be complemented by physical spaces that are embedded in our communities.

The design of public spaces must be informed by community needs. Too often, community needs are ignored, incorrectly assumed, or overshadowed by private interests in the development of public spaces. For a public space to strengthen a society, it must be designed in thorough and honest consultation with the community it serves, and with a genuine effort to realize the vision that the community demands. To be truly public, these consultations must also accommodate the participation of those who are most often marginalized.

Community needs are not static. As the disruption from COVID-19 demonstrates, we cannot predict all of the different ways in which public space may be needed in the future. Our spaces, therefore, need to be flexible, accommodating, and abundant, to meet the dynamic needs of communities as they arise. 

To support democracy, we must have public spaces that facilitate dialogue and collaboration among diverse people. Mere access to a physical public space is not enough. Many publicly accessible spaces are designed around consumption, transportation, or recreation, but not dialogue. The design and management of a decmocratic space must support the building of networks, and exchange of ideas. Often, the most marginalized people are also those who feel the least supported by our democracies, while also facing the greatest barriers to participation. We have a responsibility to ensure that their voices are heard. We must be proactive in creating structures, both physical and philosophical, to meaningfully include those that are most marginalized in our public conversations. We must foster belonging in these spaces, not just access.

Successes in public spaces can be replicated and shared. While the demands on public space differ across geographies, successes can be replicated, iterated, and scaled. Communities are watching. Urban planners are watching. We all have the opportunity to set the example by creating inclusive, democratic, and community-informed public spaces.

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