DEMOCRACY AND PUBLIC SPACE: THE PHYSICAL SITES OF DEMOCRATIC PERFORMANCE John R. Parkinson Oxford University Press, 2012, 272 pp., £27 (hb), ISBN: 978-0-19-921456-3

John Parkinson has produced a very interesting book in which he explores the relationship between democratic values and public space, or rather, public spaces in a number of capital cities. Whilst sociologists have given some attention to ideas about the public sphere, and planners and architects have concerned themselves with the design of public spaces, political scientists (and particularly those interested in urban politics) have paid little heed to the way in which parks, squares, and other public areas can enhance or limit democratic values and behaviour. John Parkinson's book goes a long way to filling this gap, even if one does not necessarily agree with all elements of his argument.

Parkinson begins by setting out what he sees as the essential nature of democratic theory as it relates to public spaces. Over four chapters he discusses democracy and democratic performance; reviews theory and public space; and considers place and politics. He sees democracy as ‘an ongoing performance’ in which actors play ‘five primary democratic roles – narrating, claiming, deciding, scrutinizing and representing’ (p. 87) – all broadly defined. Public space he sees as ‘spaces that are freely accessible…use common resources…have common effects, and are used for the performance of democratic roles’ (pp. 87–88). Thus his main concern is to see how far such spaces help, hinder, or enhance democratic performance.

He then goes on to examine how far public spaces in a number of capital cities work in terms of enhancing or limiting the practice of democratic values and behaviour. He looks at legislative assemblies in terms of their performance of democratic roles, then questions how accessible public spaces are so that they allow the public to play a democratic role (e.g. to lobby politicians), goes on to review public spaces as arenas for public protest, and finally considers cities as representative places. What comes through this examination is the extent to which the performance of democratic roles, and specifically how the part we as individual members of the public can play, is limited and constrained by such factors as the availability of public spaces for democratic behaviour, their design (with Parkinson stressing their frequent symbolic nature and their place as tourist attractions), and the changing nature of the ownership of spaces – in that many spaces we might think are open to the public are in fact privately owned and controlled. This point is well illustrated by the experience of the Occupy movement in London that sought to occupy Paternoster Square, but was forced to camp out around St Paul's cathedral, given that Paternoster Square is privately owned.

Empirically he bases his work on 11 capital cities ranging from Cape Town to Wellington, London to Tokyo, Washington to Berlin, together with Canberra, Ottawa, Mexico City, Santiago/Valparaiso, and Hong Kong. Together they make an interesting mix. Whilst one can always criticize the choice of case study areas – for example, it would have been interesting to consider Paris, Beijing, and Moscow in this context – the range of cities brings out some interesting differences in terms of the way their public space enhances or discourages democratic behaviour. Parkinson attempts a comparative evaluation of these different cities in terms of their ability to perform democratic roles, with Ottawa and Wellington scoring high and Hong Kong and Mexico City low. Parkinson recognizes the limits of his comparison, and indeed this is a weakness of his qualitative and largely subjective approach. He concludes his book by considering some of the implications of his findings and reiterating the need for more study of the performance of democratic politics.

Despite the weakness implicit in the qualitative and subjective approach adopted, the strength of the book lies in Parkinson's careful and thoughtful consideration of democracy and democratic roles and in the way in which he analyses space and place as an essential element in democratic performance. As such his book should be read not only by all those with an interest in legislative behaviour, urban politics, public participation, and protest politics, but also by others with a genuine interest in how our political systems work in practice. Highly recommended.