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In Hard Times, Public Places are More Important Than Ever
Jay Walljasper, 13 Mar 09


These are times that wrack our nerves. Every day seems to bring more news of job lay-offs and stock market losses. Walk around most neighborhoods and you’ll see vacant storefronts and foreclosed houses. USA Today recently reported that one out of nine U.S. residences was now empty.

If you don’t feel at least a twinge of panic, you’re out of touch.

Almost everyone here in the USA is looking for ways to tighten the household budget. We’re reaching for cookbooks instead of Zagat Guides. Taking old clothes to the tailor for alterations rather than shopping for new ones. Seeking out special spots in our hometowns instead of booking tickets to faraway destinations.

But let’s be honest. For a lot of people—especially upper middle class professionals who have not lost their jobs—these are not signs of utter deprivation. Sure, the economy brings inconvenience and uncertainty, but that should not blind us to the compensating satisfactions all around.

Grilling in the neighbors’ backyard can be as much fun as an evening at a four-star steakhouse. A relaxing afternoon at the local park can brighten our spirits the same as a stroll through Luxembourg Gardens or Central Park on vacation.

With less cash to toss around, we might take a closer look at what’s special in our own backyard, resolving to support neighborhood businesses and revitalize public spaces.

Places that serve everyone in the community—parks, libraries, public buildings, markets, plazas, playgrounds, sidewalks and other hang outs—are more important than ever, especially for those who are struggling to get by on shrinking or low incomes. Less money to spend on entertainment and restaurants should not mean that many folks have no place to go, leaving them confined to their houses and apartments.

The last economic crisis of this magnitude—the Great Depression of the 1930s—led to a new appreciation for public places. The recovery programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal built or restored parks, trails and recreational facilities all over the country. The American public is still reaping the benefits of these farsighted accomplishments.

It makes perfect sense to do this again on an even larger scale, with federal, state, municipal, philanthropic and community investment in creating wonderful places in every town where people can rub shoulders with one another and enjoy themselves. After decades where peoples’ lives have become more privatized, this would spark a welcome transformation of American life.

But a glance at the news in any American town or state can instill fears for fate of public spaces.

The economic crisis has clobbered state and local governments as well as philanthropic institutions, resulting in unprecedented threats to public spaces. In city after city, plans are being drawn to close libraries, reduce hours at museums, cut back on park maintenance, shelve community revitalization plans. There are calls to sell off schools, recreational facilities, even airports to the highest bidder

That’s exactly the wrong thing to do right now. People depend on these public assets more than ever. In a crisis like this, we need to strengthen the public realm, not eviscerate it.

It’s crucial that all of us speak up in favor of public spaces, forcefully pointing out how they represent a prime opportunity to stimulate our economy and pave the way for the better times to come.

This piece originally appeared in Town Square, Jay Walljasper's column on the website of Project for Public Spaces.

Image credit: Flickr/Kamaru

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It's too bad that most of America has become suburban, where public space is usually an afterthought, if it exists at all. It would be nice to see this country develop a plaza culture, but don't hold your breath.

Posted by: Ben Lurkin on 14 Mar 09

Well put Jay, as a architecture student who recently had public space on the curriculum, I have really grown to appreciate the difference between "good" and "bad" public space. Not only do they create room for social (and cheap) activities, but at the same time they allow for a greater sense of belonging to an urban area/city. The more the focus on what public space is and how it can be best created, the better.

Posted by: FM Love on 14 Mar 09

Absolutely. We should put up more bike paths to get to our public places while we're at it. I'm really encouraged by Obama's new secretary of education Arne Duncan who wants to do exactly this kind of things with schools; e.g, keeping them open until the late hours, space-sharing with the YMCA & BigBrother/sister program, having more potluck dinners etc...And speaking of the suburbs, people get rid of your stupid lawns and even stupider riding lawnmowers and replace them with gardens or indigenous landscaping.

Posted by: Rojelio on 18 Mar 09

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