The role of symbols in public spaces: are they outdated?

The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US and across the world have drawn once again attention to the role of symbols in our public spaces.

I have a personal interest in this. I am a graduate of Oxford’s Oriel College, from where the statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of history’s nastiest colonialists, looms over the city’s High Street. The campaign for this statue to fall has seen recent success, with the college’s governing body electing to take it down (subject to a planning application!).

Later, when I studied Urban Design, my research dissertation was on design in culturally diverse contexts. It taught me the importance of understanding who uses spaces, how they use them, and to be aware of the implications of changing them. It also taught me how poorly many groups are listened to and considered, how much they want to play a role in shaping, creating and being represented in the places around them, and how difficult that can be.

Now, in my professional life, I have been working on a project in Kyiv, Ukraine, a city with a painful, complex and contested past and where history and symbology play out in the built environment. When I first visited in 2011, a statue of Lenin stood at one of the main intersections in the centre. He’s gone now. The hammer and sickle have recently been chipped off the massive façade of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But it remains on the city’s most famous war memorial, the 100m tall titanium-clad Motherland statue.

Urban space is contested and symbols matter. As a designer, consideration for other groups is essential. Although I know that as a rule, urban designers are conscientious in making sure they create places that are inclusive, it’s impossible not to let personal biases creep in.

It’s important to revisit assumptions and consider how others use or feel in spaces. A glossy new mixed-use centre might be great, but not if it came at the expense of a mix of units that were affordable for essential services in a mixed, marginalised community. A decision where the latter is replaced by the former is just as much a symbolic statement of a society’s valuing of different groups as a statue of a racist that remains in a prominent place.

Planning is politics. The creation and management of places, especially urban ones, is not a simple evidence-driven technocratic exercise, as much as the UK system pretends to be. Decisions on allocating resources, use of land, and their effects on different groups are about as close as any field gets to pure politics – the exercise of power and decision-making in groups – as it is possible. We should be honest about this, and think very clearly about the impacts on different groups that planning decisions can have? Sometimes the process of creating a place is as important as the outcome – if practitioners are deaf to a community’s needs and desires, the resultant place will be tainted. Perhaps, for contentious decisions, a local citizens’ assembly which is representative of the make-up of the local community could be more effective than a traditional planning committee?

Back to the Rhodes statue. The seed idea for this blog post came when a colleague asked me “should it fall?”. Yes. It should come down, because our society has changed (through our own choices as a nation) and the symbols we put in public spaces are important statements about our collective values. They were never put there to be objects of historical study about our complex past, but as symbols of pride and veneration, judged by the values of society at the time. A museum is a place for study and academic questions, a plinth on the High Street is not.