Public Squares in the Digital Era by Judy Venonsky
“We fall in love with places for the same
Reasons we fall in love with people.
They can become part of us forever.”
Laurie Anderson, performance artist & musician
I have a very tangible and vivid memory of sitting contentedly on a park bench in Luxembourg Gardens eight years ago on my first trip to Paris. Despite a dozen or so years studying French in school, my command of the language was barely good enough to order a croissant. I was surrounded by people I did not know and with whom I could not communicate, but, surprisingly, I belonged. In fact, I was amazed by that sense of peace. It was like I was in my own private world – while a woman I did not know sat only feet from me on a bench. Curiously, I also felt connected to the strangers I observed. I watched as children bought ice cream and lovers held hands. I observed businessmen walking briskly and old men sitting in groups of movable chairs, positioned like they were chatting around a dinner table. I was part of this tableau.
Years later, when I travelled to China, I had a similar experience that left me thinking, “What is it about certain urban spaces that make me feel so connected?” On that trip, I encountered elderly men and women exercising in a park on oversized playground equipment. They came from the seclusion of their homes on a grey day in February to be among people who were most likely strangers. I joined in, and found out that I couldn’t do the athletic moves half as well as a man twice my age. I spoke no Mandarin, but we all laughed out loud, and once again I felt that I, too, belonged in this community.
Some fear the popularity of digital technology will reinforce the decline of physical recreation in social spaces. Today, virtual communities allow us to segregate ourselves into ever more self-selective and insular groups. The fact is that we have been on an unrelenting progression toward what John Miller, in his book Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape, calls the “decline of Public Man.’” In the mid-twentieth century, many Americans left the public realm of the city for the so-called freedom of the suburbs, all the while losing a sense of attachment to a particular place and the broader interests of the community at large. Our increasing use of the internet may seem like another step along the path of self-interest and self-isolation.
What I have witnessed, however, is that public urban space seems to be more popular than ever. Sure, teenagers sit for hours playing video games (I should know – I have one), but people also use social media to learn about planned or spontaneous events in parks and plazas. Blair Kamin of The Chicago Tribune observed, “The Web doesn’t supplant the public square … It pushes people to it.” And, while individuals may be drawn to a specific event, well-designed spaces allow for all kinds of chance encounters with people who might never show up on a Facebook list of friends. Indeed, earlier this year, crowds brought together both by social media and word of mouth gathered in Libya’s tightly controlled public squares, listening to musicians play songs that pushed the boundaries of political expression in the Middle East. This led to a revolution. The Arab Spring is about realizing democratic freedoms, one of those being the right to freely express oneself in public.
Public urban spaces are powerful not just because they can create revolutions, but because of their place in everyday life. We humans are social animals and need the company of others. If nothing else, we love people watching in public spaces. In doing so, we often see the commonality among us rather than the differences. Perhaps we are also drawn to the few remaining non-commercialized places where we can socialize with one another.
Cities need to recognize the needs of a growing population increasingly seeking quality, walkable public space to stroll, sit, rest, play or just watch the world go by. I believe the role of urban parks and plazas is more important than ever. These shared, neutral spaces can help us remember that there are values that we all hold in common – regardless of race, ethnicity, income level or political ideology. Creating and maintaining these spaces are a way to slowly begin to dip our toes back into the world of “Public Man.”