While the concept of Public Space is deeply rooted in human culture, it has begun to see a resurgence as a key component of civic design in American cities through the New Urbanist movement, which grew as a reaction to the traditional auto-centric development patterns of the 1950s-1990s.
This time period in American urban design dispersed and compartmentalized communities into like-parts: suburbs, strip malls, shopping centers, and drive-thru shops. This compartmentalization also grouped race and class groups into like-parts, increasing economic segregation through a variety of means. “Urban renewal” projects demolished small-scale shops and historic buildings, replacing them with larger-scale apartment buildings and offices. Suburbanization saw the out-migration of the mostly white middle and upper classes from downtowns and “inner-ring” neighborhoods to planned neighborhoods outside urban centers. In Lexington, the KY-4 bypass (New Circle Road), which sought to make transportation by vehicle easier, allowed for suburbanization to take place at a much quicker pace.
As populations with financial and political capital moved out of urban areas, much of the infrastructure of inner-cities and neighborhoods - sidewalks, parks, etc. - fell further and further into disrepair. People of differing socio-economic classes, who once lived within blocks of each other, suddenly were miles apart. Out in the suburbs, neighborhoods were being built solely with cost-efficiency, compartmentalization, and auto-centric design in mind - many planned completely without public space. These factors - along with inspirational writings of people like Jane Jacobs and financial incentives from the government to improve urban cores - contributed to the rise of the New Urbanist movement.
New Urbanism began to creep into city design throughout the 1980s, but the movement got a strong boost from the founding of the Congress for New Urbanism, a multi-disciplinary group of civic professionals that believed in the concepts of New Urbanism. The Charter of the New Urbanism begins with: “The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.”
With the growth of New Urbanist thinking in cities throughout the country, declining public spaces and infrastructure in downtowns, neighborhoods, and suburbs have come under increased scrutiny. Organizations, academic institutions, and philanthropy have all undertaken efforts to improvise new approaches to dealing with public space. The Project for Public Spaces sprung up to advocate for better public space design. MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning began a series of studies to analyze the impacts of Public Spaces. Philanthropic foundations have begun funding public space improvements as a way of expediting and innovating upon the traditional government processes.
Public Space’s function is to provide no-cost common space for people to exist and interact in. From parks to piazzas and sidewalks to alleyways, Public Space is now recognized as an essential component of any community. From a blog post on the The Project for Public Spaces:
“On the surface, it’s easy to look at great public places and see them as nothing more than well-designed physical locations. But beneath the surface, these places can be so much more. They are locations where community comes alive, where bonds among neighbors are strengthened and where a sense of belonging is fostered.”
While this increase in Public Space has been positive, questions of welcomeness and ownership come up. A 2014 article in The Atlantic entitled “How Cities Use Design to Drive Homeless People Away” discussed how cities use public space infrastructure like park benches and sidewalks to as deterrents to discourage use of public space by the homeless for sleeping or loitering.
Increasingly, public space (including privately-owned Public Space) can be intentionally designed to cater to only a specific audience. This is expressed in the book “Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity”. In it, the authors state that both unintentional and intentional“…exclusion practices can reduce the vitality and vibrancy of the space or reorganize it in such a way that only one kind of person - often a tourist or middle-class visitor - feels welcomed”. A Huffington Post article from June 2016, goes even further: ‘In sum, public spaces have gradually transformed into areas that are less open, less democratic, less comfortable, less enjoyable and less “ours.”’
In an ideal world, good public space should be designed with and by the current, immediate community. This is no exception in the North End of Lexington, where accessible Public Space is at a minimum - consisting of parks, streets, sidewalks, some publicly-owned buildings, as well as privately-owned buildings and green spaces.