High quality public spaces can be a deeply democratizing force in the urban context. Historically, public spaces — particularly in the form of town squares — have been where civic life occurs. Those spaces act a critical venue for the governance of a body politic: where activists organize; where politicians approach voters; where protests are held; where civic leaders stage speeches; where our body politic registers both its discontent and aspiration.
You can’t organize on private property — like in a mall or a suburban plaza. The suburban form, in large part, is designed to alienate the populace from itself. Front porches have become back decks. Garages are now attached. Many subdivisions even lack sidewalks. Letter writing is done through email rather than the post office. Telephone calls have transformed into text messages. In an age where human to human contact has become so strained through the suburban spatial form and now the filters of technology, the tacit value of more traditional forms of communication is plainly evident.
Public space is perhaps the most egalitarian of infrastructure investments. Town squares, neighborhood parks, and waterfront access all contribute to the civic and culture life of our city. What does it say to place the interstate 190 along 6 miles of one of the most beautiful waterfronts in the world? It privileges suburbanites, in a concern for their commute times, at the expense of urban neighborhoods, whose interests — after decades of disinvestment — yearn to be prioritized by their government.
High quality public spaces will have profound development impacts. Let’s pursue them with zeal.