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The Public Architects (PA) Committee promotes excellence in public architecture and enhances the role of the public architect as an essential element in the planning, design, construction, and management of public facilities. Join us!

Who controls urban public spaces?

  • 1.  Who controls urban public spaces?

    Posted 07-02-2018 09:40


    Buildings are used as a people stage. Everybody uses them for a myriad of simultaneously animated play areas. Balcony, forecourt, window, gateway, stairs, roof are the stage and box seat at the same time. Even the most miserable existence is proud to be, in spite of all the depravity, a participant in one of the never repeating images of the Neapolitan street, and enjoys being able to leisurely follow the great panorama. Walter Benjamin: "Naples", 1924
    Post WWII Holiday shopping at Howard and Lexington Streets in Baltimore
    ( Photo SUN, Robert Mottar)
    Where are all the people in US cities? Except for a few success stories such as Boston, New York, Seattle, or San Diego, US cities still look largely deserted compared to even no-nonsense European cities such as Zurich or Frankfurt, not to mention global fun places like Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris or Florence. US urban spaces are still dominated by cars. In the many places assembly is treated as loitering by police.

    Walter Benjamin had admired what he had called the "porosity" of Naples which he defined then as not having hard borders of confrontation and separation.

    Its hard to see such porosity in most US cities, especially in the older former industrial hubs such as Baltimore. Instead of fluidity and porosity there are hard boundaries, which demarcate the proverbial "right and wrong side of the tracks". In more affluent neighborhoods special security details canvas empty streets. In poor neighborhoods the sidewalks are busy but most city residents from outside the community wouldn't  dare to go there. Parks, the classic urban commons,  remain devoid of people most of the time. It hasn't always been that way.Historic photos depict city streets bustling with life. What has happened?

    The urban park as a commons: New York Bryant Park
    (photo: Philipsen)
    There is no lack of trying to create attractive spaces and urban plazas including reclaiming streets in the name of "complete streets" policies. Yet, the spaces remain mostly deserted, no matter the inviting public chairs and tables placed there by boosters of urban life. How different things could be, becomes manifest only during programmed festivals and events, afterwards the city goes dormant again.

    The causes must reside less in the geometry of American city space and must be searched in the more hidden codes and meanings that permeate a city, including the official codes, policies and regulations.

    Many places specifically created as people or tourist attractions, such as Baltimore's HarborPlace, are governed under a semi-private status that tries to balance commercial use with public enjoyment, assuming that there is sufficient overlap. When it comes to public speech, the balance usually tilts towards protecting commerce.
    Urban Pop-up spaces:Sandlot, HarborPoint
    (Photo: Philipsen)

    Public places in cities are in theory the people's domaine, governed by "the mayor and city council". However, reality is often more obtuse. A thick set of...

    Read full article here

    [Klaus] Philipsen FAIA
    Archplan Inc. Philipsen Architects
    Baltimore MD
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