Public Spaces and Local Democracy

On Tuesday, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to exact revenge on the city of Memphis — approving a measure to withhold $250,000 in funding that had been appropriated for the city’s bicentennial anniversary celebration.

A little backstory is required.

In December, two statues of Confederate leaders were removed from Memphis parks — a long-awaited move in this majority-minority city, where public parks honoring the president of the Confederacy and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan were hardly reflective of community sentiment.

Memphis’s struggle mirrored that of other cities that have removed monuments, many to confederate leaders, mostly in the South. After the City of New Orleans removed several confederate monuments, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s remarks were widely cited in other cities dealing with the same debate.

Following the 2015 Charleston massacre inside a historically black church, the Southern Poverty Law Center initiated a count-and-mapping of Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces across the U.S. The study identified a total of 1,503 such places.

The Tennessee House’s retaliatory measure was the culmination of a years-long public and democratic conversation about how to confront history and legacy. In 2013, the city council voted unanimously to rename three public parks that honored the Confederacy. Three years later, the city council voted unanimously to remove the statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Finally, in December, Mayor Jim Strickland — elected after serving on that city council —  announced the removal of the statues, with broad support in the city.

Unfortunately, at every step of the way, the Tennessee state legislature attempted to throw up roadblocks to the will of the people in Memphis. Following the council vote in 2013, the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act was enacted to require approval of any removal or relocation of memorials by a state historical commission

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In 2016, following the resolution to remove the statues, the Act was strengthened to require a two-thirds vote by the commission. Later, after the city creatively exploited a legal loophole for memorial removal by transferring park ownership to a non-profit, the state did all it could to make them pay. The punitive measure marks a new low for the Tennessee legislature, which has a history of inserting state preemption over local authority.

In terms of using state power to control memorials and statues in local parks, Tennesse is hardly alone. But this new front in a surging nationwide preemption battle is uniquely chilling to local democracy. Reckoning with the legacy of the Confederacy and Civil War is a critical public conversation for many Southern cities — made all the more concrete when symbols of that history sit in places of reverence in public spaces.

Parks, plazas, and city halls are gathering places for recreation and for protest. They serve as physical representations of civic identity and values. And as the culture and demographics of a city change, it is necessary to reconsider what that identify is. As Memphis Mayor Strickland put it, “These statues no longer represent who we are a modern, diverse city.”

It is impossible to overstate the significance of prominent parks and plazas to the functioning of democracy in cities. Even though your passport says the name of your country on the cover, and your driver’s license shows your state, for most people, the place where you commonly connect with others in a civic way happens at a local scale. Your city or town invests in city halls, parks, plazas, libraries, schools, community centers, and streetscapes because those places are a vessel for human interaction and discussion.

Democracy, in fact, depends on the availability of shared, physical spaces. In a world where protests are organized on social media, people still seek a face-to-face gathering. Places like Tahrir Square became globally known because they were the physical gathering for protestors who had initially organized on-line.

British political scientist John Parkinson traveled to 11 national capitals across the globe to study the relationship between public space and democracy. His findings, published in the book Democracy and Public Space: the Physical Sites of Democratic Performance, offer a very different look at plazas and parks that we more often celebrate for their ability to host tourists, festivals and concerts, not protest.

More conflicts like this will continue to bubble up, especially as the composition of statehouses becomes less and less representative of the constituencies in big cities. Charlottesville, Virginia, is awaiting a court ruling on its ability to relocate Confederate statues, which became more urgent in the aftermath of the August 2017 white supremacist march that left one counter-protestor dead. Across the country, many other cities not subject to state preemptions removed such public displays, illustrating a widespread public sentiment in favor of reconsidering their place in public parks.

State lawmakers should reconsider a top-down approach that chills public debate. They should allow local elected leaders to be responsive to the needs and desires of their own communities. Mayors and city councilmembers are the ones who face citizens on a daily basis, who share the same streets, buses, parks, and plazas as the citizens they represent. Like Mayor Strickland and the Memphis City Council’s creative maneuver, Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, Virginia, has also led a far-reaching task force on the subject of that city’s monuments. Mayor Landrieu recently announced a community-driven process for replacing the monument to Robert E. Lee, by partnering with innovative efforts like Paper Monuments, a project dedicated to “creating symbols of our city that represent our collective vision.” We should applaud these leaders for sparking challenging conversations in their communities about shared spaces and shared histories.

In the end, Memphis’ authority to express those values through its public places should be celebrated – not punished. The process through which the decision was made to remove the statues was surely more democratic and representative of the city’s residents than the legislative processes that repeatedly attempted to deny the people of Memphis that right. And the legislature’s response is clearly meant to punish the decision, not to solve a policy conflict of statewide concern.

At the very least, state legislators should rise above petty and punitive measures that show contempt for the thoughtful and deliberate conversations cities are having about the legacies enshrined in our public places.

About the author: Jess Zimbabwe is the executive director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.


Alex Jones.jpg Alex Jones is the manager of NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative, where his work focuses on unveiling the extent and effect of state intervention in city governance. Previously, he was a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and strategic adviser to its Centennial Scholar Initiative.