by Randy D. Bosch
Most of the “best” urban open spaces are public domain, whether piazza, square, quay, beach, park or garden. Usually they were designed with one or more “public” (ruling party) or “patron” designed buildings adjacent or within them. If more than one structure exists, they were usually developed over several regimes or generations.
The rest of the buildings “touching”, “using” or “creating” the space are usually private. Often, one of these buildings, whether public or private, was built prior to the conception of the “space” created adjacent to it. In situations where ALL of the participating buildings occurred AFTER the creation of the space, the result is usually much more focused and formal, and comes with trappings of accepted or dictated design rules which can now be seen as onerously dogmatic and monumental.
Relative to residential open spaces, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, park “advocates” had to fight the belief that proximity to a park lowered residential property value. Today, marketing sages sell their version of the “greenbelt” to provide off-street access to a park and school as the center of their “new community”, or alley access to garages claiming to foster “New Urbanism”. This fosters suburban development at its worst as it removes people from the street, making the street the unadulterated domain of the car. The pedestrian easements invade “backyards” with no private space, while front yards and driveways are miniaturized to offset the lost land. At the same time, the house designs have not retrenched from 1970’s prototypes needing large front yards and visual privacy to the rear living area. And the parks, though sold as “pastoral”, have most of their open space signed over to organized youth sports to the exclusion of “park” and “cultural” uses. There is no concentration of population to access and support “culture”; no relief of “car-mania”, no more urban house design, and no concentration of tax dollars to create and support cultural community facilities.
Resulting residential areas claim to be fulfilling the post-World War II mini-estate dream with 1980-90 “one car for every person” freedom, using ever more expensive and scarce resources of land.
A significant problem in non-residential areas is that almost all “new” spaces are planned by and for a single developer, internally oriented. Most properties in appropriate settings “hoard” the space, like old cloisters or courts, rather than presenting it for “sharing” with adjacent uses and the public. Both are needed. The public “sharing” is a parking lot. The public often pays for and usually maintains the now overly long streets.
The challenge in crafting a livable and sustainable city includes, naturally, a usable public open space system, cultural and recreational resources, within the opportunities and constraints of a 21st Century Capitalist Democracy Secular Humanist Society.
Many towns and cities from Renaissance to 1900 in Western Europe had the components created appropriately for its resources and society. Most American towns and cities have the core resources in place and ample opportunities in underutilized land and overly redundant infrastructure to catalyze ideas for a workable system.
One size does not fit all, and each specific community (not just the municipal bureacracy or a cookie-cutter externally imposed order) must be part of the process of discovery and decision-making in the new American Renaissance.