Undemocratic Architecture


Joe Mathews argues that the average city council chamber is designed to kill civic conversation:

Walk into a council chamber or school board meeting room in your town, and you’ll likely see rows of chairs facing some sort of raised dais or stage, where the council members or board members sit. The whole point of the setup is to have you look at the politicians, not your fellow citizens. Essentially, city council chambers are laid out like church, and, as in church, you’re not supposed to talk too much. So it’s not surprising that fewer and fewer Americans bother to go to city council meetings (or, for that matter, to church).

For a better idea, he suggests looking to a certain coffee chain:

To unleash the untapped power of council and school board meetings – to make them about creating conversations – we must flip our priorities and redesign the spaces, so that council chambers and boardrooms are foremost places for people to gather and talk. What does that look like? Well, it looks like Starbucks. Take out the old fixed benches and seating of your council chamber. Set up tables and chairs and nice couches. Have a bar for serving coffee and healthy snacks and maybe even beer and wine. (I’m a teetotaler, but I don’t know how an elected official could summon the courage to grapple with California cities’ outsized pension problems without a slug of Jim Beam.) …

[People] go to places where they feel comfortable, where they can eat and drink, where tables and chairs are arranged in ways that encourage conversation. In my San Gabriel Valley community, there are so many people spending time sitting and talking at the three local Starbucks that it’s often hard to get a table. Great bars and restaurants always seem full. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to find an empty seat at our local ice cream parlor, Fosselman’s in Alhambra. Rarely have I had this problem at city council or school board meetings.

(Photo of Oakland City Council meeting by Daniel Arauz)