Civic Space

Civic space refers to the places in which a community performs or engages in some part of its political or social life. At its heart, civic space includes government buildings, especially ceremonial spaces, such as courtrooms and legislative chambers. More broadly, civic space can include spaces used for community activities, including open-air environments where public activities such as assemblies or speeches occur. Because most civic spaces are intentionally designed for use by the public, they express the values and culture of a community, and they have the potential to shape how individuals behave, what they perceive, and how institutions perform.


As distinguished from inherently private spaces like homes, civic spaces are either open to the public (though they may have security or access restrictions) or provided to the public for official use by those vested with authority. When governance in a democracy is viewed as a representative process, legislative sites, where elected representatives make policy decisions, necessarily constitute one type of civic space. Governance as a legal process occurs in the many courthouses and other judicial buildings built specifically for judicial activity, including hearing chambers and courtrooms. The executive branch's spaces, from the long hallways of bureaucracies to the chief executive's offices, may seem different only because changing ideas of access have removed them from regular public view. In fact, well into the nineteenth century, the White House was open to the public and presidents were known to meet with visitors.

Because deliberation and discussion are essential to the democratic process, a second important type of civic space includes places in which citizens interact, gather to discuss public topics, or mobilize for action. Many of these spaces are open-air or natural landscapes, including public parks, squares, and sidewalks. Their publicness is enhanced by television coverage of protests and other demonstrations created partly for media dissemination. Such spaces are frequently imbued with meaning by the presence of statues or monuments. One of the most significant such spaces in the United States is the National Mall in Washington, DC, which stretches from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, includes the Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans Memorial (among others), and was the site of many famous gatherings, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech ( 1963 ).

A third type of civic space includes spaces that are viewed as sites for the dissemination of public values and knowledge. These include community centers, public libraries, schools, and universities. The way civic sites are laid out and designed, the architecture of their buildings, and the displays of important leaders, war memorials, and other civic tributes are all part of a long tradition in the United States of designing such spaces so as to inculcate democratic values.

Toward that end, for example, Thomas Jefferson's ( 1743–1826 ) influential design for the University of Virginia invoked classical styles to encourage order and featured views of nature out of his belief that it promoted virtue.

A view of the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool as seen from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

A view of the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool as seen from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Through much of American history, all levels of government have supported the creation of civic space—sometimes collaboratively. Congress supported one such wave of development beginning in 1862 with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, which provided free federal land for the establishment of educational institutions, including what became known as state land-grant colleges. As America became more urban and industrialized, cities began to establish large city parks, guided in part by civic ideals concerning the necessity of leisure and nature. Civic space can also arise through private initiative. Between 1889 and 1919, nearly 1,700 libraries, designed with symbolism about self-improvement and enlightenment, were given to American cities through the philanthropy of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie ( 1835–1919 ).


The careful design of civic space has been a priority from the early days of the Republic. One way to study civic space, then, is to examine the design and decoration of the space in order to understand the values inspired by its creators.

In a democratic system, primacy falls to legislative buildings, and such structures often received central, prominent locations and substantial investment in both materials and ornamentation. The capital cities of American states feature a state capitol or state house where the legislature meets. These temples of democracy, as Charles Goodsell ( 2001 ) puts it, capture the essence of the state in architectural form. The New York State Capitol, for example, is designed in the ornate empire style to showcase the heft, wealth, and diversity of the Empire State. All states (except Nebraska) have bicameral legislatures, allowing many states to model their capitols after the US Capitol, with house and senate chambers separated on either side of a central rotunda and dome, based on a symmetrical blueprint. Whatever the materials—the choice of local stone frequently having symbolic importance—the investment given to the edifices signals the belief that these institutions have been designed to endure.

Architecturally, the design of American civic space has followed the fashion of the era. The classical motifs of ancient architecture were popular in the young nation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and dominated American civic space as expressions of the ideals of Greek democracy and the Roman republic. Those buildings have remained influential in America through to the contemporary period, though more modern styles and materials have emerged for reasons both aesthetic and economic. Whatever the style, civic space often draws on a common vocabulary for particular political values. For example, the scale of civic buildings is meaningful. In the early Republic, public architecture featured the Federal style, known for its simplicity and human scale. As the nation grew, so did its self-image and the role of government in society. Public buildings also grew in height and size, partly to demonstrate greater authority.

Beyond the fabric itself, the symbolic meaning of civic space is usually enhanced through artistic displays. Murals and painted ceilings are common in capitols, city halls, and courthouses. Such artwork features a wide range of themes intended to instruct citizens and officials on the history of the city or state or the history of law and democracy. The art may also include allegorical inspirations for good government. Courthouses, for example, frequently contain symbols for the rule of law, such as the iconic figure of a blindfolded female justice holding a scale. Statues and portraits of historic figures adorn many public buildings and town squares.

Some of the values in American political life can be interpreted by what is excluded from civic space. For example, while European cathedrals and churches are frequently located at the heart of cities and on public squares, most American cities built after 1789 tended to convey the strict separation of church and state by locating religious buildings and symbols away from the town square.


The symbolic and practical significance of civic space puts it at the heart of many disputes. Many conflicts have required courts to interpret how the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, applies to public space.

The belief that public space is essential in a democracy led US Supreme Court justice Owen Roberts ( 1875–1955 ) to write that streets and parks have “immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions” ( Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization, 307 U.S. 496, 515 [1939] ). Attempts to restrict or punish those who seek to use such “traditional” civic spaces as public forums for protest activities have frequently been met with careful scrutiny by the courts. More recently, such protests have been taken to abortion clinics and cemeteries, resulting in cases in which the courts must balance the rights to speech and assembly against the right to unobstructed access.

As America has suburbanized, Main Street has been supplanted by privately owned suburban shopping malls distant from public parks and centers of government. The US Supreme Court has ruled that states, acting through their state constitutions, could extend the right to free speech to such places. However, most have not done so, and the First Amendment does not guarantee protection in such privately owned places ( Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74 [1980] ). Similarly, airports, even the few owned by government, have not been regarded as deserving the same high level of protection as public meeting places, such as city parks ( International Society for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee, 505 U.S. 672 [1992] ). Critics contend that vigorous public dialogue has been made more difficult by the shrinking of civic spaces where citizens can engage over clashing viewpoints.

Because the design of civic space communicates shared values, the display of religious symbols has presented one of the greatest challenges. In the second half of the twentieth century, communities with longstanding holiday displays were asked to recognize increasing religious pluralism, both within the Christian majority and among other faith traditions. In one case, the US Supreme Court declared invalid a nativity scene displayed in the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, PA, while upholding the display of a Hanukkah menorah outside the City-County Building and next to the city's decorated Christmas tree ( County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 [1989] ). These complexities were also on display when the Supreme Court allowed a monument bearing the Ten Commandments that had been placed on the grounds of the Texas state capitol ( Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 [2005] ) but struck down displays of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses ( McCreary County v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 [2005] ), while the figure of Moses bearing the commandments graces the frieze of the Supreme Court building itself.


In the twenty-first century, one of the most significant shifts in civic space and communication is the movement from the physical to the virtual, as citizens no longer need to visit public buildings for many activities.

The movement of civic space from physical space to cyberspace raises many new challenges and opportunities. Many civic associations and interest groups have used their online sites, services, and resources to recruit, organize, and energize supporters for civic action. Most governmental institutions have online public sites; however, they differ in quality and use. Most municipal service departments, from parks to trash collection, only post one-way information, although some departments provide a contact tab to email a concern. Other departments are allowing online registration for certain items, such as pets. City planners may use more interactive sites for electronic public forums, but citizen input is most often actively sought only for a particular reason (e.g., soliciting public feedback on grant proposals). Some public libraries and archives, such as the Library of Congress and National Archives, are using cyberspace to more systematically organize and present rich banks of primary source material. In contrast, legislatures still find it difficult to present their legislative bill histories in ways the general public can easily access and search with success.

Pathways to increasing interaction are available through newer technologies, but they depend on whether public institutions and citizens actively seek to invest in increasingly sophisticated online systems that allow citizens to use two-way channels of communication to reproduce pre-electronic forms of interaction. In the meantime, the smarter civic associations and interest groups will continue to expand online platforms to mobilize their supporters for civic action.

The rapid development of Internet technologies since the 1990s has already allowed new adaptation by public bodies. Online spaces can increasingly provide both efficient delivery of public services and more organic forms of interaction. Through such adaptation, the design of civic cyberspaces will continue to reflect the long-standing American practice of being intentional about the creation of places where people interact for public purposes, so that those spaces communicate and enable a vision of democratic values.

SEE ALSO Civil Community ; Civil Society .


Goodsell, Charles T. The Social Meaning of Civic Space: Studying Political Authority through Architecture. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.

Goodsell, Charles T. The American Statehouse: Interpreting Democracy's Temples. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Lidsky, Lyrissa. “Public Forum 2.0.” Boston University Law Review 91 (2011): 1975–2028.

Resnick, Judith, and Dennis E. Curtis. Representing Justice: Invention, Controversy, and Rights in City-States and Democratic Courtrooms. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Simon, Jonathan, Nicholas Temple, and Renée Tobe, eds. Architecture and Justice: Judicial Meanings in the Public Realm. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.

Zatz, Noah D. “Sidewalks in Cyberspace: Making Space for Public Forums in Electronic Environments.” Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 12 (1998): 149–240.

Patrick Schmidt
Macalester College