Jennifer Forestal

Jan 19, 2023

Designing for Democracy

How to Build Community in Digital Environments

Oxford University Press 2021

Political Theorist Jennifer Forestal’s new book is a fascinating exploration of contemporary democracy and how it operates in different spaces. Forestal’s avenue into the question of democracy and the space in which it functions comes out of the idea of how spaces are designed and for what reasons. This idea of built environments—be they city centers in urban areas, software architecture, or the existence and width of sidewalks—contribute to how we, as individuals and community members, operate in those spaces. Forestal is paying particular attention to participatory democracy, where community members come together to solve problems collectively.

Designing for Democracy: How to Build Community in Digital Environments (Oxford UP, 2021)weaves together the concrete, the actual spaces where we can gather together or where we are pushed apart, and the theoretical, the way democracy, as a concept, draws on the will of the people to govern themselves. In examining democratic theory, Forestal integrates work from Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Dewey, all of whom provide frameworks for thinking about and understanding interactions between individuals and the effort to share responsibility to govern in common.

Forestal unpacks the many ways that built environments guide our choices and behavior—from how the layout of a grocery store pushes us towards certain kinds of purchases, to the design of sidewalks or the absence of sidewalks as determining our public engagement or disengagement—and how this is an often overlooked or obscured exertion of power, especially political power. The power of the built environment trains us in a variety of ways, and this is an area where changing the design of the space in which we exist can also change our behavior and can shift our perspectives. Democratic theory is predicated on individuals acting together, and the space in which we do this contributes to the success of these efforts, or their fragmentation. Social media spaces are very much like the physical built environment, and Forestal examines three different social media spaces, Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, exploring how they are and are not hospitable spaces for democracy.

Designing for Democracy: How to Build Community in Digital Environments is an original analysis of how physical and virtual spaces provide individuals with barriers or openings to engagement, and how these spaces can shift our behavior and our priorities. Ultimately, democracy is an idea that must be translated by real people in real spaces and places, and how we all engage with one another is not just important, it is the basis for the implementation of this concept of self-government.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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