The Benefits of Public Space

The issues of public space and its various uses are essential and necessary topics on a survey of the ideas behind a “city”. Public space takes on many forms, many uses and many roles. These areas in a city are often what define its image, as the objective of these places is to provide a gathering space for the masses, thereby ingraining the image of the space into the populace. Additionally they also provide a means of sustaining the social, economic, and ecological reason for the city. In the United States the formation of public spaces has been a relatively steady development as its necessity has been recognized as time has gone by. One interesting period to note though is the flood of public spaces created as a result of The New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

During The New Deal unemployment rates soared and millions were left without work. With a nation in need of jobs, it seemed appropriate to take the opportunity to create spaces that embody exactly what the nation needed. Robert D. Leighninger wrote in his essay “Cultural Infrastructure: The Legacy of New Deal Public Space” that “Almost all of the projects that the PWA, WPA, and CCC undertook were places where people of all ages, classes, and races might come together” (The document can be found here)The projects completed during The New Deal included places such as parks, museums, gardens and playgrounds. These efforts clearly demonstrate one of the definitions of public space, an accessible space. This definition describes public space as accessible to anybody and reflects a notion of basic equality, social freedom of circulation and anonymity. Furthermore, on top of the need to provide work for a considerable amount of people Roosevelt headed a diverse population and party, introducing many new elements of diversity among his ranks. Addressing the practical issue of work, while also providing a place to reinforce the diverse foundation that led to his presidency it seemed that providing urban stability and national unity was a wise choice. One example of the success in using  public spaces to bring the diverse masses together in a safe environment was noted in Central Park. Leighninger wrote that two historians claimed shortly after World War II that “…many New Yorkers apparently came to view Central Park as relatively safe as the grew more comfortable with people of different backgrounds and came to accept that black and Puerto Rican teenagers, gay men, as such, were not intruders there”

Unfortunately though, the mentality towards public urban spaces has changed as a result of key lifestyles changes in the United States since The New Deal era. The rise of consumerism has driven the population back into their homes, the rise of technology and the ease at which information is accessed has given society even less of a reason to venture far beyond their immediate surroundings. As a result of this decline is the use of public spaces, another interesting issue has arisen with lawmaker’s adherence to the actual definition of public space and how this definition has changed over time, causing problems for a certain part of the population. In the published report “Illegal to Be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States” (found here) it is argued that the idea of public spaces like streets, sidewalks, and parks as “common property” that can be used by anyone no longer exists as a results of private property owners. The zoning of these once public spaces as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) exclude those with no access to private property from public property. Essentially, all homeless people. In the report it is also cited that the reason used to justify exclusion from these “public” spaces is that homeless people could possibly be criminals and threats to public safety. This then raises the mind-boggling question of where the line is drawn on the true definition of “public” The strict approach would say that any being with his or her own humanity should be allowed to use these public spaces. Realistically however, a public space occupied solely by the homeless in a sense loses some quality of a “public space”.

Public spaces are inherently going to change over time in their characteristics and image portrayed to the public. As seen in the opinions on Central Park as a once safe place, it can also be said that at one point it may have also been a very unsafe place. With this in mind, the changes brought about by modernization, consumerism, and The New Deal with regards to public space have all uniquely shaped society’s view on them. This evolving perception and usage of these spaces is perhaps where their brilliance lies, and as the physical form remains constant society adapts these forms to its needs at any given time.

Links to sources:

Cultural Infrastructure: The Legacy of New Deal Public Space

Illegal to Be Homeless 2004 Report


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