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Solimar Research

Considering the Revival of Public Space

Sam Hall Kaplan on
Oct 6, 2019

What seems like just a few years ago, planning and design critics were bemoaning the death of public space, a victim of municipal neglect, overt commercialism, and media disinterest. Apparently we had surrendered our urban fabric to an unholy alliance of myopic traffic engineers, duplicitous developers, disingenuous elected officials, and undiscerning pedants. Pedestrians were suspect, sidewalks shunned and parks avoided. Pervading all was a fog of civic unease.

Today, urbanists are celebrating the crafting and care of public spaces as harbingers of more open and inviting cities. They envision places where people can come out from behind their computer screens to experience a rare sense of community, however fleeting, and share a cup of coffee, however pricey. Tourists join this chorus, their ardor for community feeding local coffers and conceits. 

As for urban designers and planners, there is an encouraging new awareness and appreciation for context and community, the purpose and potential of public space, and the need to hone the cryptic craft of placemaking. 

Cryptic indeed, for the diversity of cities, the fracturing of communities, and shifting demographics are very much a challenge to those in search of a “genius loci” and to those who would design inviting places to live, work, or visit. 

To that both personal and professional quest recommended is Envisioning Better Cities, by Seattle urban consultant Patricia Chase and University of Washington professor Nancy K. Rivenburgh. As its subtitle, “A Global Tour of Good Ideas,” implies, it is a bucket list of sorts. It journeys to well grounded places, projects and programs that make their host cities more “livable and sustainable,” and hopefully inspiring to others.

The tour is understandably derivative, and respectfully echoes previous insights of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, Holly Whyte, and Charles Montgomery, among many others. It cites a host of the iconic landmarks, such as the High Line in New York City and the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, and a familiar few hundreds more. It includes other more modest places and projects, both novel and suggestive that can inspire planners. 

(Captions rather an index of credits would have been appreciated. So would have an index, as well as better photos and some illustrations.)

There are a lot of good ideas in this practical text, presented in an informative, unvarnished narrative that the authors hope “results in a book that will inform and inspire.” It does, not only to advocate professionally in a city, but also to include in personal travels beyond one’s regular jurisdiction. To be sure, people-friendly fixes focused on public places make our communities more livable. The authors raise question, though, of how selectively is this celebrated, given the harsh reality of the nation’s income inequity. 

This widening gap has become a principal socioeconomic and political problem that in time undoubtedly will undermine the democratic hope for a diverse and sustainable city, urban design initiatives not withstanding as well as democracy itself. 

Putting this and in general gentrification into a prescient perspective is the The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America by Alan Mallach. Insightful and progressive, Mallach notes the demise of many major, and notably mid-sized, Middle America cities of the middle class, where there is pronounced homelessness and increasing lack of affordable housing. It should be added this is very much at present grist for academic conferences, and think tanks, but little action has been taken.

Some varying solutions are, however, offered in a recently published and welcomed third book, Affordable Housing, Inclusive Cities, edited by Vinayak Bharne & Shyam Khabdekar.

Collected in a well-organized, informative and illustrated text are 36 essays of actual case studies and real projects tackling inclusiveness in housing and public place. Though the perspective is worldwide, the focus is refreshingly local, with in-your-face and on-the-ground realities that affect a staggering nearly one billion people. 

The scattered efforts everywhere, described by the discerning editors lend some hope for a more livable future and social justice for all. One likes to end these reviews not with an after thought, but with a note of optimism. 

Envisioning Better Cities: A Global Tour of Good Ideas
Patricia Chase and Nancy K. Rivenburgh
ORO Editions
200 pages2019
$24.95

The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America
Allan Mallach
Island Press
344 pages
2018
$30.00

Affordable Houses, Inclusive Cities
Vinayak Bharne and Shyam Khandekar
ORO Editions
$25.00
200 pages
2019