I rode my bicycle to Washington Square Park this weekend. In the park people weren’t looking at their phones, they weren’t looking at flowers, they were looking at each other. The park was a giant human interaction. Seeing people eye to eye on a regular basis helps you to understand other people. It helps you to have empathy for other people and it helps you understand that we are sharing this space called earth.
As I sat in the park looking at people I thought what would have happened if in 1955 Robert Moses had gotten his way and this was a four-lane highway with trees instead of a park? What would have happened to the value of this space?
Washington Square Park is where 20,000 workers marched in 1912 to protest the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it is the backdrop of the Beatnik Riot of 1961, it is where in 2007 former President Obama engaged 20,000 potential voters, and it is currently one of the most popular protest spots in New York.
Public space is one of the most effective political tools we have to defend democracy. Who we are as New Yorkers and Americans starts not at the polls, but in our public spaces.
From the Dynamics of Public Space in a Globalizing City by Grenzeback and Dittrich, “The condition of a society, its degree of integration or disintegration, can be identified especially by observing the state --of its public space.”
Healthy neighborhoods have public space that people use. A public space isn’t just a park. It isn’t just a huge swath of grass. Public space is a forum where people share ideas, beliefs, art, experiences, and information.
Public spaces are places where the public can physically let the government know what they do not like and what they do like. Public space is also where the working class person and the rich person becomes equal, at least for a moment.
Jane Jacobs said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
The usefulness of public space doesn’t end with the struggle for human rights, that’s just the beginning. Public space is a reminder of why Complete Streets are important. The most important part of life is being on the path you’re supposed to be on. To get where you’re going you need to be able to sit down and think. Public space is where everyone can have leisure. Leisure is not just for those who are well-to-do. In the US we feel that everyone, if they work hard, should have a right to shelter and food, but there is something else that everyone should have --a right to happiness.
People who live within walking distance of successful public spaces are happier, healthier, and understand the world in terms beyond just themselves.
The public space isn’t just about protecting green space, it is about protecting what makes us human.
by Teka-Lark Lo