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What’s the role of public spaces for dialogue?

Last month, Patrick Middleton suggested that an important emerging area for public dialogue is that of ‘connected conversations’ or ‘distributed dialogues’. This is a model in which citizens are supported to hold conversations themselves in a variety of different arenas, and feedback results to a central hub over a longer time period. The conversations might happen in people's living rooms, at festivals or during meetings of other community or charity groups.

His suggestions chime interestingly with research on the importance of public spaces in promoting community engagement and dialogue.

In a recent review on public libraries in Chicago, the Urban Libraries Council found that they work as effective catalysts for community engagement, and that they are particularly well positioned to ‘bridge’ connections between different groups of people. In their vision for libraries which built on this research, they suggested that libraries should position themselves as ‘Conversation Starters’ and become democratic hubs to engage in conversations about important public issues.

In a very different way, Mary Portas’ review on the future of the High Street also captured the importance of local public spaces for interaction and community cohesion. Although the vision does not include spaces for dialogue, creating a sense of community and increasing interaction through vibrant public spaces is key in laying the groundwork for a more engaged citizenship which includes deliberation around public issues. In turn, deliberative exercises undertaken in public spaces are likely to bolster a sense of shared community in public spaces, creating a potential virtuous circle.

While the majority of research into public spaces has focussed on their effects on community cohesion, further understanding of the potential for shared public spaces to support dialogue would help inform how this area could be cultivated.