This paper describes how particular normative dimensions have become embedded in public space. It identifies four periods of urban history, starting with that of the liberal city which introduces a heterogeneous set of liberal and democratic values. The sanitary city of the nineteenth century came to depict public space as a system of flows that needed to managed. The twentieth century rational city endorsed functionality and efficiency as key values, as manifested in modernist architecture and neo-liberal policies. Recently the experimental city emerged, in which digital technologies give rise to ‘smart’ systems, but also to new forms of civic engagement. It is argued that the experimental city needs to accommodate the normative dimensions of public space developed in preceding historical periods, which necessitates that conflicts between these dimensions need to subjected to democratic trade-off processes.