- 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.