No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions. It was easy to see the immense influence of this basic fact on the whole course of society. It gives a particular turn to public opinion and a particular twist to the laws, new maxims to those who govern and particular habits to the governed. … It creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs, and modifies whatever it does not create.
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.
— James Baldwin, letter to Sol Stein, 1957
Places Journal is seeking articles that explore the ways in which the ideals and practices of democracy are made manifest in our cities, buildings, and landscapes.
The design of public spaces extends from constructed environments to the spatialized networks and systems that shape a society. How do these support the “equality of conditions” that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville during his travels through the young republic? And what is lacking in them — now as then?
We are open to diverse approaches to this theme. We are interested in narratives of particular cities and sites of public assembly and social protest, and how these sites are being used, activated, monitored, or compromised. We are interested in spatial histories of the civil rights movement, from the lunch counters and municipal buses that became iconic settings for civil disobedience to the meticulously planned marches that crowded the National Mall, and we are interested too in how today’s social movements extend these histories via street-based actions and online activism.
We invite authors to dig into how democratic principles are sustained or subverted by evolving patterns of land ownership and regulation, by the apparatus of state and corporate surveillance, and by policies which work to protect or curtail individual freedom of movement. How exactly do buildings and landscapes embody our hyper-partisan politics? How are ICE arrests and sanctuary spaces remapping metropolitan networks? Does a kleptocracy betray itself through the works it builds?
But just as important are the routine civil services that uphold an equality of conditions — a democratic infrastructure — and which are now being undercut by disinvestment or malign neglect. In what ways does the U.S. Postal Service, created in 1792 to ensure the uncensored and efficient exchange of news and information, remain essential in the age of Amazon and the internet? How will today’s flow of news and information be changed if the Trump administration’s attempt to repeal net neutrality (now being challenged in court) succeeds, and the broadband internet is privately controlled? What would happen if the U.S. Census Bureau were to take a partisan or inaccurate measure of a rapidly diversifying America? How do laws that protect environmental quality advance the goals of justice and democracy? What happens to community life — community trust — when municipal utilities do not supply clean water to drink? Or when elected officials seem indifferent to the availability of affordable housing or the safety of public schools?
“An environment is also an inward reality,” James Baldwin wrote. “It’s one of the things which makes you, it takes from you and it gives to you, facts which are suggested by the word itself.”
So we ask: what are the architectural conditions of democratic life in the United States and around the world?
This is an open call with no time limit and no restrictions on genre or format. We welcome proposals or finished manuscripts from scholars, journalists, essayists, designers, and artists. For more information, please read our Submission Guidelines.