What Makes an Inclusive Public Square?

A Space With the Right Infrastructure Can Support, Welcome, and Empower Everyone

The public square is the meeting ground where people make society happen. In these spaces, physical or metaphorical or digital, we work through our shared dramas and map our collective hopes. Ideally, the public square provides room to solve the problems we face. It is also where new, thorny issues often arise.

This “Up for Discussion” is part of Zócalo’s editorial and events series spotlighting the ideas, places, and questions that have shaped the public square Zócalo has created over the past 20 years.

For this fourth installment, our contributors think about how we might foster a public square that welcomes everyone—from its physical characteristics to its ethos. How does a flat, unobstructed surface exposed to the sun invite in more people? Can the public square in fact be a public triangle? Who are we empowering in our communities through public services? And might we be able to create a world that fits all worlds?

They answer these questions to tell us: What makes an inclusive public square?

Benjamin A. Bross

Building a user-friendly environment

The public square as a spatial, physical concept emerged from the fusion of built environments, like plazas, with people gathering to interact socially and exchange ideas. This physical spatial locus enables the exchange of ideas that inform our sense of community and invigorates democratic institutions by catalyzing community participation. Consequently, this exchange became what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the public sphere.

Welcoming public squares invite community users to engage in social, cultural, and political discourse by integrating at least four key aspects: morphology, programming, accessibility, and people. Public squares are not necessarily “squares” per se, but they are usually voids in the urban fabric that contrast with surrounding building mass, are uncovered providing solar exposure, and can host various activities. Significantly, most successful public squares are flat, or gently sloping, unobstructed surfaces, like Mexico City’s Zócalo.

The Zócalo is a quintessential public square, which reveals that morphology alone is not enough to produce a welcoming spatial public sphere. Public squares require programming. From ancient Sumer over 6,000 years ago to the present, market activities and commercial establishments, civic and religious institutions, and political power centers have drawn people to these spaces. The most welcoming public squares provide users with varying experiences—food stalls, department stores, museums, government buildings—which in turn benefit from their exposure to the flow of people. In one plaza corner, individuals dance in pre-Hispanic attire, while street vendors hawk cheap imported goods. Along the plaza, market stalls serve traditional and affordable Mexican foods, like tacos and esquites. Just a few meters away, you can dine on nouvelle cuisine on a balcony while overlooking military parades marching through impromptu tent cities, or rock festivals alternating with political protests.

Welcoming public squares need infrastructure that is user-friendly, especially for those with disabilities, that can be reached through affordable and convenient mass transportation, and promote the safe flow of people to and from these civic nodes. Finally, welcoming public squares are focused on serving the people. Today, the Zócalo continues its role as the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas: Across its vast surface, surrounded by historic buildings, people engage in dialogue or call for cultural, ethnic, political, religious, and economic rights. The recent global pandemic and the current crises of confidence in government institutions across the political spectrum have made evident the urgent need for welcoming public squares where we can once again exchange ideas and strengthen our sense of community.

Benjamin A. Bross is assistant professor at the Illinois School of Architecture and the author of Mexico City’s Zócalo: A History of a Constructed Spatial Identity.

Emily Ladau

A commitment to accessibility

If we consider the term “public square” in a figurative sense, it raises a question: Why must it be a square? Why not a public triangle, circle, or trapezoid? To be truly welcoming of everyone in any public forum, we cannot be rigid about the shape it takes.

As a disabled woman, my mind and body do not conform to arbitrary societal expectations of how to show up and occupy space. I am a wheelchair user, someone who experiences chronic pain, and I have hearing and mental health disabilities. The spaces I’m expected to be in are frequently inaccessible to me. The supposed antidote to this is “universal design,” a concept meant to ensure that products and environments are usable by all people. I believe the name of this concept is a fallacy.

There are estimated to be more than a billion disabled people in the world, which means there are more than a billion experiences of disability. A single public square in any form likely won’t be accessible to everyone. But if we are willing to be expansive in our understanding of how and where public squares operate, we can create more opportunities for people who are all too often shut out of public discourse to take part in thoughtful connection and reflection.

This means thinking beyond the typical square, so to speak. For instance, if you’re hosting a gathering or event, fostering a flexible, adaptable environment should be top of mind. Are you providing both in-person and virtual participation options? Are you making it abundantly clear in any advertising that all are welcome and can contact organizers with accessibility requests? Are you taking active steps to hold space for the perspectives of historically underrepresented groups?

This isn’t just about checking off boxes to fulfill an obligation. It’s about recognizing that no public square can be a place for truly meaningful dialogue unless we commit to the work of accessibility. We must reshape who we invite in, and how we engage.

Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights activist, speaker, communications strategist, and the author of Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally.

Luis J. Rodriguez

Unity, liberty, and compassion

Just over 30 years ago, on January 1, 1994, Mayan people in Chiapas, Mexico, rose up as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), fighting for Indigenous rights and control over their land. At the onset of the fighting, I was in El Salvador working as a journalism fellow. I considered going over to Chiapas, but the border was under military occupation.

Over the years, the Zapatista struggle stayed with me, and I’ve read and stayed on top of the movement—including incorporating their principles in my community work with L.A.’s Indigenous and other communities, both from here and among migrants. One of these principles is: We want a world where many worlds fit. This is based on an Indigenous cosmovision—the individual and collective worldviews of pre-Columbian societies—based on the notion that respect for others is respect for oneself.

This tenet is a starting point for any true local, national, or global “public square.”

Most recently I used the Zapatista’s principles during the pandemic when we organized a Black-Brown Unity Coalition in northeast San Fernando Valley after five persons were killed in gang violence. The violence stopped and we were also able to provide free food weekly to some 200 families in the community of Pacoima, near a federal housing project where some of the violence stemmed. These are the stakes for making people understand this principle.

We all belong. We all matter. This square should not be limited by borders or beliefs. All are welcome—just as Mother Earth acknowledges and holds every one of us, regardless of ideology or whether we have been incarcerated or impoverished.

I’m talking about innate human value, not contrived and imposed “worth” based on a job or financial considerations. Not “America First” or made-up scarcity or closed doors advocated by backward ideologies of advanced capitalism. But unity around the essential things, liberty around the non-essential things, and compassion in all things. A new world in which all worlds fit.

Luis J. Rodriguez served as Los Angeles Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2016, is the author of Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., and founding editor of Tia Chucha Press.

Bamby Salcedo

Empowering people to be who they are

I don’t know any public place—educational, governmental, cultural, religious— where I have felt completely welcome. I am an empowered trans woman, but this has not been my experience. And I know it hasn’t been for many other members of my community, either.

But I believe that we can create a public square that is welcoming. A starting point would be educating personnel—from the front door to the back door. People have to understand why it’s important to ask people their pronouns, and that when we misgender people or dead name people, it brings down morale and inflicts profound adverse effects. The public square is a place to learn, and to influence the way people think and act. It must reflect the tapestry of the people in it.

Also crucial to a welcoming public square is eliminating the hardship and violence our community experiences.  In last year’s L.A. homeless count, there were more than 2,000 trans and gender non-conforming people. There is a true need for housing, not just emergency but supplemental. Employment discrimination is high. We have to deal with harassment, and ultimately many of us leave workplaces because of the discrimination we face.  And in 2023, at least 32 trans people were murdered. Violence in our community started with institutional violence that translated to interpersonal violence.

The TransLatin@ Coalition I founded in 2009 functions with two arms: service provision and systems change. You can’t mobilize people if they’re struggling with basic needs. We empower our community through our services—from helping with re-entry from incarceration, job training, health and legal services, education. And that lets us engage in debate and discussion, and influence change in the institutions that have marginalized us for so many years.

Empowerment means being able to be fully who you are, and to live your life as you are, without the fear of being killed simply because of who you are, or criminalized because of who you are. When we are empowered in that way, we can thrive.

Bamby Salcedo is the president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition.