Humanity’s Territory: Why We Need to Reclaim Public Space

Lindsay Nielsen

We increasingly live in a world where we don’t have to leave our homes, and when we do, we travel in isolation. We can work from home, communicate through e-mail, take correspondence courses, shop, bank, order home-delivered food on the Internet, and be entertained by home-based technologies. When we do venture outside, it is often via the automobile, and we spend only rushed moments on city streets.

Our technological society has many benefits, saving us time and providing us with flexibility to do what we want when we want. We can move through vast informational territories and are able to communicate with people around the globe.
The ubiquity of Internet access testifies to a new reality: the boundaries of our virtual world seem limitless, yet we don’t have to leave our homes to explore this new terrain.
Presently, the boundaries of another world are on the decline. This is the world of public space – not the space of the virtual realm, but that of the material, the space of our living and breathing communities.

The advent of the digital age has contributed to the deterioration of tangible public spaces, but it is not entirely responsible for the decline of these spaces. In his book, City: Rediscovering the Center, William H. Whyte explains that the agora, the great assembly place of ancient Greece, declined with the introduction of the columned court in the third century A.D. The agora had been integrated with the web of city streets, but the development of the columned court isolated the agora from the surrounding city, eventually causing it to turn inward entirely. In his study of Greek cities, R. E. Wycherley says, “When the agora became a mere building, however grand, this meant a certain disintegration of the city.”

The decline of the agora was regrettable, for it was a dynamic public space, containing the marketplace, public buildings and shrines. Wycherley imagines that the agora was a noisy place: booksellers promoted their wares next to bankers, meat was sold next to fish, prices were disputed, gossip and politics filled the air. Socrates strolled in the streets and would stop to chat with citizens under the shade of a tree.

The Industrial Revolution also contributed to the shrinking of public space. We used to congregate in the town centre to hear the town crier yell out important news. As Lyn H. Lofland notes in her book, The Public Realm, the development of the telegraph and telephone meant that such assembly was no longer necessary. We used to be forced to leave the house to obtain water and dispose of refuse. We now have indoor plumbing, making life more convenient and less public.

The development and pervasive ownership of the car further diminished meaningful participation in public space. A person can comfortably drive through a city and be utterly sealed off in a private world. Lofland notes that our involvement in public space also has declined in the twentieth century due to innovations such as refrigerators and freezers, which mean we don’t have to shop frequently for food, and televised political speeches and debates, which have decreased the importance of the political rally.

Today, public spaces take many forms, from the streets to plazas, from parks to community centres – and there are many reasons why they need to be preserved. It is in public space that we encounter a wide variety of people different from ourselves. Public spaces are important because they provide room to negotiate how we will live together in a highly populated environment. Encountering people of different races, classes, ages and abilities on a daily basis has the potential to cultivate a citizenry that is more tolerant of diversity. Public space is the territory of humanity. It is in this arena that we can raise our awareness of the connection we have to each other. It is here that we may realize that in all our diversity, we actually have more similarities than differences.

Public space also is important as a place for celebrations, protest and dialogue. Much of our diversity, from political to sexual, gets played out in public space. For example, gay pride parades raise public awareness of segments of the population that are often invisible; groups assemble on the streets to protest against the buildup for war in Iraq. While various segments of the population will react differently to such celebrations and demonstrations, these events inevitably remind all of us of the complexity of our social fabric. Public space is a necessity if we are to understand the perspectives of those with whom we share the world.

Streets are highly valuable public spaces and street life is integral to a well-functioning city. As Jane Jacobs noted in her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users, are active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism in cities. To keep the city safe is a fundamental task of a city’s streets and its sidewalks.” This becomes difficult when streets lose their vitality.

Streets are declining as a form of public space because street life often is perceived – and sometime is – unsafe: thus we frequently retreat indoors, making the streets even less safe. We spend time in shopping malls, which appear to be public spaces, but because they are privately owned, they are not, in fact, genuine public spaces. Private sources such as malls act as quasi-public spaces, for they do bring friends and families together to shop and perhaps stop for a snack in the process; yet these areas are not substitutes for real public spaces. What you are free to do on the streets, you can’t do in shopping malls – mall owners have the right to prevent political protests from occurring on their properties. Designing malls with more street exposure by incorporating elements such as outdoor cafes would foster a better relationship between quasi- and genuine public spaces. This would make malls more like streets – and street businesses are integral to the fabric of dynamic and safe cities.

Don Alexander, an adjunct professor at SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management and a director of Vancouver’s New City Institute, has spent a lot of time thinking about how to create livable cities. He notes that active street life thrives in cities like Paris where squares, parks, and cafes are much more vital to social networks than they are in North America. He says that in Europe, there is “a sense that one does not have to duplicate for oneself all of the necessities of life because society provides this rich realm.” Alexander argues that in North America, we need to have more civic events, and places where people can simply “hang out.” Unfortunately, at present, our sense of investment in the public realm is diminishing, with negative implications for society.

Deborah Harford is concerned about the quality of life of her nine-year-old son, Augustus. Harford, a single mother who lives in an apartment building near Broadway and Commercial Drive in Vancouver, says that if she felt more confident that society was set up to take better care of children, she wouldn’t feel so worried about letting her son go outside. She is faced with the competing interests of her child’s freedom versus his safety on a daily basis. In an urban environment not designed for little people, safety has considerably more clout than freedom.

Harford grew up in small country villages in Buckinghamshire, England, in a childhood radically different from that of her son’s. “I was able to follow my nose, to go where I felt like going, and let my imagination take me in all different directions. Augustus does not have that freedom.” Where she lives, there is no street space for her son, and she does not feel confident letting him walk alone in the city. Her frustration is clear: “Kids are seen as anomalies. People think that they’ll graduate to real human status when they get a little bigger. While they are small, their scale is not considered.”

There is uneasiness in Harford’s voice when she says that it’s too dangerous for her son to try to cross Grandview Highway to go to Trout Lake. “There are traffic lights near by, but I wouldn’t feel confident letting him go off by himself. Even if I did, I would be afraid of abductions.” At his school, Hastings Elementary, there have been approximately 10 attempted – and fortunately unsuccessful – abductions in the last year. The school has responded well to the problem by educating the children and by establishing a neighbourhood watch program with local merchants. However, Harford’s fear persists. She is not alone in her concern for her child. Heavy traffic and fear of abductions severely limit children’s access to public space. How can this problem be alleviated?

Harford argues that much can be done to make public space safe for children. “I would like to see pedestrian-friendly crossings more frequently on streets. I would like to see the streets be more kid-oriented with wider sidewalks, as well as a more coherent attitude amongst people on the street to be watching out for kids.”

Harford’s words echo those of Jane Jacobs, who argues that one of the important uses of sidewalks is the assimilation of children. Jacobs asserts that in “real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn – if they learn it at all – the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you.”

While Harford knows the neighbours in her building, and there is a child-watch program within it, she still lacks meaningful contact with the other people who live on her street. Connections among neighbours are vital for the cultivation of safe public spaces. If we call for help on the street, we want to know that our neighbours will answer us. In Harford’s area, a neighbourhood-wide child-watch program would make the streets safer for children, as would small street additions such as gardens and alcoves with benches to encourage more public space activity.

Streets can also be made more child-friendly if we decrease our reliance on the automobile and create pedestrian-only zones within cities. In such areas, children could play freely on the streets without the potential danger of being hit by careless or distracted drivers. Pedestrian-only zones would also impede child abductors; in losing the car, they would lose their greatest ally. We could begin exploring the viability of pedestrian-only zones in Vancouver by creating three-block no-car zones in various locations throughout the city where there are high concentrations of children and where effective transit infrastructure is currently in place.

There have been efforts in Vancouver to improve the quality of public spaces and foster a sense of community among residents. In 1995, Vancouver City Council adopted CityPlan, an extensive, 20-year vision for the city that would guide policy decisions, budgets, and capital plans directed towards making Vancouver a more livable place. Part of the plan, which includes an extensive public process, is to create new and more varied public places with distinct neighbourhood centres that have greater pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly streets, more parks and open-spaces.

Ronda Howard, a Vancouver senior city planner, notes that when there are greater incentives for people to walk in their neighbourhoods, there are more eyes on the street: thus the streets become safer. Additionally, she argues, “people derive a sense of psychological health from meeting their neighbours. Just knowing that you can ask your neighbour for something as small as borrowing sugar helps foster a sense of community among people.”

Vancouver’s Greenways/Public Ways project and its Green Streets program also help cultivate attractive, community-oriented public places. The Greenways/Public Ways project connects paths, roadways, and corridors to large parks throughout the city, thus encouraging city-dwellers to experience the “outside inside the city.”

The city’s Green Streets program also promotes community participation in the public realm. The city supplies the funds for the construction of more green spaces, such as boulevards and traffic circles, and members of the community are responsible for the maintenance of these gardens. The Green Streets program helps foster a sense of community by getting neighbours out on the street working towards maintaining communal green spaces. Green Street gardener Becky Macleod enjoys her neighbours’ input into her work: “Every time I change something or add a path, people come by and give me their point of view. I really like that.”

While Vancouver’s planning department has made serious efforts to improve the livability of the city, the long-term nature of city planning means that not everyone in the community can benefit from these endeavors. Deborah Harford and her son Augustus live in Kensington-Cedar Cottage, one of the areas the department has improved. They are not able to enjoy the city’s efforts because they live on a street not directly targeted in the plans. Clearly, the city has a difficult task in trying to make Vancouver a more livable place.

Despite the challenges facing parents raising children in the city, different social networks can augment child involvement in public space. Harford says that strong social ties help increase her son’s autonomy in Vancouver. One of Augustus’s friends lives on a neighbourly, residential street that connects to an East Vancouver park. The mother of Augustus’s friend is comfortable letting the two boys walk together unsupervised to the park to play as well as walk to a local candy shop on Commercial Drive. “Augustus loves doing that with his friend,” says Harford. “The woman who works in the candy store loves the kids, gives them great deals on candy, and watches out for them.” It is this neighbourliness that allows Harford to feel safe letting her son walk with his friend in the city.

Festive community events such as the Public Dreams Society’s “Parade of Lost Souls” and “Illuminares Lantern Procession” serve to reclaim the importance of the public realm – particularly for children. Harford speaks highly of the Parade of Lost Souls: “The streets are closed off to cars so it’s totally safe for the kids to dance on the street. It’s a wonderful example of how Vancouverites do think about community, and how to be in public in a way that’s based on fun, not driver convenience.”

The cultivation of meaningful public spaces can happen with social responsibility and political will. If we want to live in a healthy society, then we as citizens need to take better care of those around us – even those we don’t know. Jen Rashleigh, a program assistant at Douglas Park Community Centre in Vancouver, works to foster an environment that is welcoming to a diversity of individuals in the community. She helps organize the “Sharing Our Wealth” festival that brings many groups together. Rashleigh says that this annual neighbourhood event was developed out of the community centre’s desire to reach out more to people in the area. The idea of the festival was to build an event that would have something for everyone.

“Sharing Our Wealth,” which usually attracts about 1,500 people, encourages all members of the community to bring their skills and interests into a hub. The lively event involves performances by a variety of singers, musicians and dancers, and it has included a storyteller who sits in a tent under a willow tree as well as an oral history booth where people who have lived in the area for decades chat about local history. This type of festive event that attracts different members of the population serves to reinforce the importance of public spaces in urban environments.

When we actively engage with others who are different from us, we have the opportunity to become more sophisticated and tolerant citizens. When we get to know the diverse members of our communities, we create social networks that make our cities safer and more enjoyable. Public spaces are integral to making this happen. These spaces are an antidote to the inward gaze of individualism. We need to reclaim public space and work to expand its boundaries. It’s time for us to leave the house of the self in the background, and go outside.

Lindsay Nielsen is an English and psychology student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.