While traveling the world for my work, I’ve noticed an interesting, universal phenomenon: in developing countries, those that were or are under communist regimes, and those currently under oppressive dictatorships, there is a tremendous negligence in the treatment of public spaces. There is rubbish everywhere, open sewers, dilapidated buildings. However, when you walk into a person’s home, it is clean, modest, and generally, nicely furnished.

I have seen this phenomenon in India, Serbia, Ghana, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and more places.

In comparison, in the U.S. the buildings and roads are relatively clean, and there are gardens and parks not covered with rubbish.

What makes the difference?

I do not think it is the GNP of the country, or the average income per inhabitant, or the level of education, or even the disparity in wealth.

I think it has something to do with the system of governance.

The common denominator of developing countries, those that were or are under communist regimes, and those oppressed by hated dictatorships, is that the population does not identify public space as THEIR space. There is an attitude of “my space” and “your space”, and what is in between is “NO ONE’s” space.

I believe that in these cultures, the people have come to feel that public space “belongs” to the government, and since the people reject the government as not theirs, they feel the public space is not theirs either.

In many developing countries, the culprit is the legacy of colonialism. The country belonged to the colonial parties, and the indigenous population was alienated from the spaces they were forced to share.

In communist regimes, the same phenomenon: Government owns it all, and since the government is “not OURs ,” the public space is not ours either.

The common denominator of developing countries, when a population does not identify itself with the government in power, and that government denounces culture and commandeers communal space in the name of the State, or the Crown, the population will not assume responsibility or feel pride for something that can easily, forcibly be taken away from them. They will not take care of or invest in something they risk losing.
Conversely, in a dictatorship, which for whatever reason is accepted by the population, the streets are clean, the buildings well preserved. Examples: Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan.

In India, however, there is an Interesting difference. The larger cities are slums with open sewers, garbage galore in the streets wherever you look. Now go to small villages in the countryside in the same India. They are clean, nice. Actually, quite pleasant places to be.

As we are becoming more and more urbanized, public space is more and more the responsibility of local government, not of the people using it. No government can clean as much as the people can make it dirty.

I believe a goal should be to decentralize government in favor of increasing local and neighborhood governance. We can strive to create less central authority and more local responsibility.

Just thinking,
Ichak Kalderon Adizes