What Public Space Must Be: Public

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photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity

Planetizen recently released their list of the Top 100 Public Spaces in the U.S. and Canada — Normal, Illinois, New Haven, Connecticut and Detroit, Michigan topped the list — and we’d like to take a second to think about what the meaning of public space really is, and what makes these public spaces truly great.

Great public space begins of course, with great design. Yet no public space can flourish without the people who use these parks, plazas and paseos. For any public space to be successful, it is absolutely necessary for that space to emphasize a collective community ownership, and the inevitable pride that comes along with that sense of ownership.

After all, the public are essentially the collective owners of any public space.

Cities across the country can and do enable various methods of “community responsibility” for public spaces, whether it be upkeep, gardening, information services, or event organization. When cities give their citizens this power, the space transitions from a well-designed piece of land to an active gathering spot for community.

The unfortunate case in most of these spaces, however, is that cities take control of everything: they regulate, require payments, force informal gatherings to be planned and permitted, and generally make citizens feel like it’s not their space. When public spaces are managed in this way, not only do the people loose their sense of ownership, but also of connection and pride.

This issue isn’t a new one, yet it has rather unceremoniously been brought to the foreground in recent months as the “Occupy” movements begin to invade public spaces in cities across the nation. With large amounts of citizens now attempting to “live” in local parks and plazas, local governments are reacting in unusual ways, handing out citations, locking citizens in jail, even taking to tear gas and firearms with tragic results.

The Occupy Wall Street folks represent a rather extreme case of  community ownership, yet what local governments are doing in reaction by kicking protesters out of these spaces, teaches the public a lesson: you do not own public land.

Of course the public owns public land you thick-as-a-brick politicos! The public are the people who these blasted spaces are built for, and the public are the people who pay for these spaces with their tax dollars!

Even if your ‘average’ occupier as portrayed by news media looks a bit disheveled, and perhaps is in need of a hot bath, they must be respected in their attempts at staging peaceful assemblies, tent cities and all. For tough guys like Michael Bloomberg, the subject has become a platform for showing off Mayoral brute force instead of trying to work with occupiers to ensure they use the space safely and cleanly.

We don’t have to agree with the occupiers, but we must agree that our public space is communal, and for the sake of our cities and public spaces around the nation, both the occupiers and the local governments must realize and respect this.

What is public space, without public use?