Cahokia is one of the largest historical American cities you’ve probably never heard of. Peaking around 1250 CE, Cahokia is considered the first Mississipian settlement, a culture which spread to throughout the central and southeastern United States. The city’s inhabitants built over 100 mounds, eighty of which remain. One of them still towers 92 feet over the surrounding fields and is easily visible from the scratched postage-stamp windows of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. With somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 people, it held the record for the largest American city until around 1800, when Philadelphia finally overtook it.
With that many people crammed into just under three-quarters of a square mile—the estimated size of the city’s neighborhoods—it may sound like Cahokia was as cramped as the slums of Upton Sinclair’s Chicago. But it probably didn’t feel that way. Sweeping plazas and towering mounds added nearly three square miles of open space, keeping much of the city open and airy like Baron Haussmann’s Paris. Yet unlike the city on the Seine’s astronomical modern density of 58,890 people per square mile, Cahokia’s population lived at a positively suburban 1,000 to 1,500 people per square mile, thanks to the plazas and mounds.
Density in the pre-Columbian United States: A look at Cahokia
So today I was back in my hometown of Dayton taking pictures for my Urban Design project, and we were stopped at a light right at the #occupydayton protests. We cheered and talked to them out the window but didn’t have time to get out of the car, although I wanted to. Not only to support the conversation (protesting (or as I like to call it “active democracy”) is somewhat of a hobby of mine), but also to take pictures of the public space they have been utilizing (some can be seen at the above link, however.)
My History of Planning class is particularly relevant right now. I just read about the Ancient Greek Agora, which was the open space specifically set aside for the citizens (meaning the free-born, land-owning males… lame) to come out to hear the political issues of the day and speak on them, democratically. It was a requirement to attend these meetings if you qualified, and it’s also the reason why Aristotle said
“A polis of 10 citizens would be impossible, because it could not be self sufficient, and that a polis of 100.000 would be absurd, because it could not govern itself properly” (Kitto, 1951)
It’s also where the term Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces and/or crowds) comes from. And it’s also where ideas for public spaces (to be recreated from the Roman Forum to town squares) originated and our ideas of democracy were sown and practiced.
I remember, during the Arab Spring, reading about the correlation between the large protests and the cities with the most accessible and large public squares. It certainly makes sense, and is a stark reminder of how it’s planners and politicians jobs to make sure everyone has access to such places… and makes us consider what people in power are aware of it and purposefully deny the public such space.
What about you guys? Have you been reading/thinking about anything interesting related to democracy, protests & access to public space?