I work as an expert with CIVIC architects on a research assignment to explore design possibilities for new places for political debates, conversations and protests that take place outside the traditional council and parliament halls. The need for active participation of citizens in policy seem to be growing in importance. Today I had a very entertaining conversation with Gert Kwekkeboom about the possibilities for these places. First an introduction of the project:
The project ‘Scenes for new dialogues’ has as its starting point the thesis that ‘the citizen’ wants to be heard more, and differently, and be more involved in the decision-making of administrators. The question is whether our traditional spaces for political debate – town halls and parliaments – are (still) suitable for this or whether they change too slowly with the needs of society.
At the same time, we are investigating opportunities for improvement opportunities for better design. Or are physical places for debate already outdated, in a society where by far the most amount of discussion takes place online? A space for debate does not necessarily have to be a physical space. But even then the question is how such a virtual space functions and looks like.
Some of the threads we explored (among others) in our talk today:
The sensecape of a debate room. The spatial “regime”, or “atmosphere” of the place is guiding for a conversation or debate. For example, is the room too dark or too light, open or closed, friendly or intimidating, does it echo or not? In our conversation we focused on the need for a balance of stimulation. Specifically, we looked for ways to adapt spaces to the size of the attendees (social density) and the intensity of the debate. By playing with stimulation in a subtle way, the space can appear more intense or more peaceful. This provides opportunities for a chairman to find an appropriate level of stimulation for a constructive outcome of a meeting.
The relationship between openness and closedness, intensity and relaxation. We realize that for a well-functioning democracy, the opportunity for consultation and meeting is essential in order to reach compromises. By making a mix of open and closed places a la Herzberger, people can have more or less privacy. In addition, it is important that the areas around the conversation areas can restore the attention and energy of those present. Debates can be an intense affair. If the spaces in between can contribute to the recovery of “energy”, the quality of conversations will improve and there will be less discomfort from stress – at least that is our theory.
Identity as a reflection of society. Town halls are often designed to appear neutral, try to activate a ground culture from the local flora and fauna (a thatched roof) or reflect a historical quality. For a part of the population, these identity choices have no significant associations or memories. The architecture is therefore not meaningful enough – it does not attract people because it does not represent shared values. In a way, it is a place devoid of values. The idea we explored was that for a better functioning “debate temple” the site should claim a broader set of subcultures in The Netherlands – and make less appeal to only the mainstream white, highly educated middle class culture.
Centrality in city life: lowering the threshold. Participation and co-determination are increasingly important for a properly functioning government. This is evident, for example, from the presentation of the report of the Brenninkmeijer committee on 21 March. In this report on the role of citizen forums in climate policy, they indicated that participation and copartnership at an early level is indispensable to formulate and implement well-fitting policy. By also viewing a place of debate as a place for reflection, participation and discussion, forums can be created that focus on cooperation, rather than competition.
We thought that the threshold of the forums should be as low as possible in order for it to work properly and a wide part of the population feels recognized and called to enter. Forums can therefore be located in city centers where they are linked to active walking routes. The spaces are integrated into the urban fabric – comparable to the covered shopping streets in the past. They can become semi-public places where people can walk in and out of easily. Places with a high degree of accessibility and hospitality. There may also be a role here for expanding the libraries’ range of tasks, because these buildings seek the same quality.
We are looking for locations to organize an exhibition in 2023, possibly supplemented with discussions and debate. We are also looking for municipalities that feel touched by the theme and want to be involved in the research. Do you work for a municipality as an alderman, councilor, policy worker or otherwise, and is this suitable for your municipality? Then I would like to hear about it and I will contact you so we can explore the task more widely.