- by Ben Willis
This article was originally published by Common Edge as “How Public Space Can Build Community and Rescue Democracy.”
Public spaces are having a moment. People from outside the field of urban planning are beginning to notice the vital contributions that they make to our quality of life: inserting nature and cultural memory into the everyday, reminding us of our collective responsibilities, supporting democratic expression. People are also beginning to notice the subtle ways in which those contributions are being eroded by threats of privatization, corporate appropriation, and apathy.
Most acutely, this moment is brought to us by Apple, which has begun an aggressive retail rebranding effort to re-conceptualize its stores as “town squares,” and wrought a wave of well-founded concern. Technology continues to beckon us away from the need to leave our homes or interact face-to-face with other humans. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, it would follow that opportunities for such interpersonal interaction become a luxury we begin to seek, a call to remember our origin as social beings.
Not to give technology too outsized a role in this moment, politics also plays a part: political progress often demands a physical place to exercise our first amendment rights (or to fight for them). Large, visible public spaces are a natural home. Americans in particular have recently discovered that places we treat like public spaces—airports, for example—are, in fact, the domain of private companies, or are at risk of being ceded to private companies. When we see public spaces as a physical extension of our rights, we begin to approach their true value to our society.
I can distinctly remember, during a cross-country bus tour in college, stepping off the bus on Main Street in Greenville, SC. We were greeted by wide sidewalks with bountiful street trees, well-paved crosswalks that invited us to surf from one row of shops and storefronts to another, punctuated by public art, and terminating in a park overlooking the river. With places to sit and some protection from the elements, the street invited people to interact and to linger. This was my first personal “aha” moment that a street could be more than just a corridor for the efficient movement of automobiles—if its physical elements were designed well, it could be just as vital to the health of a place as a park.
Yet, as much as designers of the physical environment may be hesitant to admit this, no amount or configuration of tangible elements can magically create an intangible sense of community—people are ultimately responsible for this. But designed spaces can create a hospitable environment for such community to develop.
What characteristics do these environments share?
They provide space for interpersonal interaction—pleasant to occupy for enough time to eat a meal or hold a long conversation and scaled for individuals and groups. Physicality is critical. Being face to face with another person (or group of people) causes different patterns of engagement than across the screen of a smartphone or behind a faceless computer keyboard. Public spaces may also invite proximity to “otherness:” interactions with people you might not meet in private places built for groups with common socio-economic status or leisure activities.
They balance safety and freedom. Our instincts as social beings, almost like gravity, draw us to physical centers for momentous occasions: consider where people congregate after a major sports victory, or for a protest. Everyone in a community should feel welcome and safe, even if they are there to speak critically to the powers that be. There is a disconcerting trend of allowing privately-owned public spaces (POPS) to take the place of actual spaces that belong to the public. These POPS don’t have to allow protests or rallies that might be perceived as “uncomfortable” or “off-brand,” but that are nonetheless vital to democratic expression.