From the earliest civilizations, humans have cultivated a sense of community and culture through public spaces. In ancient Greece, the Agora (literally meaning “assembly” or “gathering place”) was a geometric square hosting meetings, tribunals, and debates. In the Middle Ages, peasants congregated at the lively marketplace to trade and socialize. Without these dynamic spaces at which people can meet and converse freely, scholars argue that such imperatives as collective action would be impossible.
When one examines today’s global cities, however, these public spaces are painfully scarce. In the Western world, in particular, public spaces began dwindling with the surge of urban redevelopment post-WWII. With cities managing tight budgets and large-scale developers eyeing profit per unit of land, the two struck an agreement: so long as the building plans included some form of public space, the former would allow the latter to erect larger structures.
Thus, developers constructed plazas and courts in exchange for beneficial zoning concessions. As the landscape of cities changed from multiple buildings on small blocks to singular edifices spanning entire blocks, there was a growing need for public spaces to temper the increase in scale. Since developers sought financial gain over the public’s benefit, however, their privately-owned public spaces (POPS) did not fulfill this need. Instead of facilitating spontaneous congregation, these areas mostly steered pedestrians from the CBD’s sidewalks to retail purchases, whether this is a café or arcade.
For a concrete example of this phenomenon, consider the Yonge-Dundas Square. Located in Toronto’s downtown core, the square was—and continues to be—advertised as the largest urban public space in Toronto. In reality, this development is the product of a “public-private partnership” between the city and private sector interests.
Rather than the open, interactive space the public envisioned, the Yonge-Dundas Square is an ad-laden, concrete expanse managed by CCTV cameras, private security, and various city by-laws. Then, to preserve control over the venue, anyone caught engaging in activities common to traditional public spaces—like riding a bike or skateboard, lighting candles, releasing balloons, or giving unplanned speeches—can expect to be accosted by security.
When public spaces are regulated by private authority, the potential for spontaneity and other hallmarks of a culturally-thriving society is restrained. If some group is believed to threaten the interests of this private body, they can be banned from congregating, which violates the very tenets of community and freedom for which public spaces stand. As such, the need for public space is not just an urban issue, but a social one as well.
After decades of campaigning by collectives like Reclaim the Streets, the debate around urban planning has seen a resurgence with the Black Lives Matter movement. For generations, historically-black communities were underpaid for work and overcharged on rent, resulting in continued financial struggles to this day. In cities like Ferguson, where ~50% of homeowners owe mortgages greater than the value of their homes, institutional investors have brought gentrification and loss of culture.
In response to this reality, Black Lives Matter activists have begun pressuring cities to prioritize local interests over those of the elite. By investing in affordable housing and public, solidarity-based spaces, cities would be investing in a higher quality of life, strengthening cultural identity, and realized use-value. In the long-term, this opens the door for communities’ local autonomy, breaking a pattern of reliance on outside investors.
In Detroit, for instance, the city’s Reimagining the Civic Commons project aims to reinvest into local communities. Over the past four years, the ongoing initiative has constructed the $1.1 million Ella Fitzgerald park from 26 vacant lots and a half-mile greenway.
Citing the ongoing pandemic, the city emphasizes the ever-growing importance of shared spaces as an outlet for residents. Whether this is to get some exercise or just some fresh air, these parks have proven invaluable to sustainable redevelopment. In the words of Arthur Jemison, Detroit’s Chief of Services and Infrastructure, “The current crisis has shown how critical public spaces are to the health and well-being of the community.”
The propagation of COVID-19 has illuminated many aspects of our society, including the shortage in public spaces at the community scale. At an event organized by the Canadian Urban Institute, this topic was discussed by a panel of architecture critics, studio principals, and firm partners. Given that North American cities have sold much of their publicly-owned lands, the panelists agreed that public spaces should be integrated into all future developments. In terms of untapped resources, they made a point to single out streets and roadways, which have been hitherto reserved for the private automobile.
Over the past few months, the ActiveTO project has modeled a potential image for future public space initiatives. Since the first lockdown measures, Toronto experienced a widespread running boom which led to overcrowded trails and parks. To create extra space in which citizens could safely social-distance, the city closed off 57 km of “quiet streets” for the benefit of runners, walkers, and cyclists. The program has been extremely popular among residents thus far, prompting many to wonder whether the city would be willing to extend some version of it beyond the pandemic.
After months of social distancing and video chatting, it’s only natural that people begin itching for unencumbered interaction. Once the COVID-19 vaccine arrives, allowing the masses to overflow restaurants, shopping malls, and coffee shops, the relative lack of public spaces will become palpable. Over time, the public will come to realize that these privately-owned, hybrid spaces are not enough. Only through versatile, vibrant, true public spaces is viable community-building and connection possible.