Public spaces: America’s new frontier
We humans are social creatures. And for eons, our settlements reflected this. We built houses close together, and used public spaces to connect with neighbors.
Over the last half century, this social ecology has been disrupted. Development has taken forms that keep people isolated in cars. Big, box stores have ended the familiarity between shoppers and merchants. Political debate has shifted from town squares to the costly enclosures of television.
Volunteers in Portland, Oregon, pause while turning a city intersection into a work of home-spun art that invites passers by to slow down and interact with one another.
C I T Y R E PA I R .ORG
A revival of public spaces and local commerce is underway in America.
From Bryant Park in New York to Pioneer Square in Portland and Copley Square in Boston, urban plazas are coming back to life. Even Detroit, which was built by the automobile, is reviving its downtown by rerouting autos around a new publicsquare called Campus Martius Park. The park bustles with life in both summer andwinter (when there’s a skating rink), and has attracted some $500 million in newinvestment to the area.
Not all the place-making is by government. In Portland, Oregon, informal groups of neighbors have reclaimed street intersections. They paint vivid designs on the pavement to mark the place as their own. They also add rustic structures, such as produce exchange stands, play areas, and even a 24-hour tea stand.
In Boston, people in the Dudley Street neighborhood formed a land trust in1988 to buy vacant land and determine how it could best serve the community. Today there are 600 new and rehabbed homes — all with a cap on resale prices — plus gardens, a common, parks and playgrounds. These efforts revitalized the neighborhood without displacing local residents, as would have happened through gentrification.
Now Americans are pushing back. They’re building community gardens and farmers’ markets, reviving public spaces, and demanding that public buildings not be named for corporations.
Wi-fi for all
The Internet is the sidewalk of the 21st century; it’s where people and businesses
connect. So it’s not surprising that cities are starting to build high-speed wirelessnetworks the way they once built streets.
Many operate wireless ‘hot zones’ that offer free access over dozens of blocks. Others, like Philadelphia, are rolling out low-cost service city-wide. In San Francisco and New Orleans, city-wide access may even be free.
As of early 2006, nearly 150 U.S. cities were deploying or planning public wi-fi networks. That’s a 50 percent rise over 2005. And it excludes countless hot spots set up voluntarily by citizens and local businesses.
Meanwhile, in Washington,
a bi-partisan group of senators hasintroduced legislation to open unusedTV channels for wireless broadbandaccess. These vacant channels reachfarther and penetrate buildings betterthan the ‘junk band’ currently allottedto wi-fi. If they are made available,urban and rural wi-fi networks couldbe set up quickly and at low cost.
B R I N G I N G D E M O C R A C Y T O M A L L S
Local merchants aren’t the only ones hurt when a Wal-Mart comes to town — civic life
suffers, too. When people congregate in private shopping centers, the First Amendment no longer applies. Owners can — and do — ban leafleting, petition drives, and other forms of grassroots democracy.
But California, New Jersey and Colorado have ruled that shopping malls are like public squares, and must be open to free speech, even if they are private property. Voters in other states are demanding similar rights.
Two friends enjoy wireless Internet access in Bryant Park in New York City, one of many free hotspots around the country.
A berry good day at a farmers’
market in Seattle, Washington.
Democracy grows hollow if citizens don’t have places to rub shoulders with one another.
— J AY WA L L J A S P ER
A renaissance of farmers’ markets
Until the Civil War, most American cities had public markets. In the 1940s, therewas a brief resurgence, as farmers sought better prices and shoppers soughtfresher food. Then came interstate highways, and the market for seasonal localproduce collapsed.
Now the tide is turning again. From Union Square in New York to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, city-dwellers are rediscovering the pleasures of meeting each other and the people who produce their food.. There are now nearly 4,000 farmers’ markets in all 50 states, double the number ten years ago.
For many, a visit to the local farmers’ market (like this one in Madison, Wisconsin) is a festive activity.
Raising community along with tomatoes
Economists say people will care only for what they own. If that’s so, how do they explain the green oases that have risen from vacant lots in New York City? Rubble became garden plots. Street sculptures and shrines appeared. People built sheds for tools they shared — all of this on land they didn’t own or lease. Today New York is dotted with 700 community gardens. About 150 of these will eventually give way to housing, but the rest will stay.
And it’s not just New York. The American Community Gardening Association counts 70 major cities with community gardens. In Seattle alone, more than 1900 families raise food in these neighborhood spaces.
These gardens yield significant amounts of food. In Philadelphia, gardeners save an estimated $700 per year on food bills. The Food Project in Boston produces over 120,000 pounds of vegetables on 21 acres; most of it goes to people in need. Just as importantly, the gardens turn strangers into neighbors.
Is it Willie’s field, or AT&T’s?
In America, sports stadiums used to bear names that told you where you were.Today, stadium names are sold to the highest corporate bidders. But many fans are fighting back. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Packers wanted to sell the name of famed Lambeau Field. After a public outcry, the effort died.
In San Francisco, voters approved a referendum banning the sale of naming rights to Candlestick Park, where the Forty-Niners football team plays. Now they’re battling to name the stadium where the baseball Giants play. First it was PacBell Park, then SBC Park. When SBC became AT&T, many fans had enough: they’re asking the city in its signs to call it Willie Mays Field, henceforth and forever.
A group digs space for a pond in Greene Acres Community
Garden, one of many in Brooklyn, New York.
The corporate name of the San Francisco Giants ballpark has changed so many times that fans are naming it Willie Mays Field once and for all.