Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The Value of Public Places (in Good Times and Bad)

Dateline: 9:25 am March 3, 2011 Filed under:

I’m a big fan of Bill Bryson’s travel writing, and perhaps his most evocative story is found in “Neither Here Nor There,” his late 1980s account of traveling through Europe. He stopped one afternoon in Capri, Italy, and after wander through the maze of narrow laneways and a nice dinner, he strolled to the handsome public square, amazed to find it full of locals (the Japanese and German tourists were tucked in for the night) out buying wine, cheese, bread and generally gathering in informal groups around the square.

He watched in awe as adults mingled and drifted from group to group, chatting as their children ran around the public space, and teenagers stood around talking and joking as well, causing no trouble and even making sure to include those they don’t know in their conversation. Bill Bryson longed to live in a place like that, as do I and I’m sure others who have read this account. Shouldn’t every town have a pleasant public space or square for residents of all ages to gather and shoot the breeze after running errands?

The events the past couple weeks in Madison have shown the importance of a good public space for protesting as well. I can’t think of a better place to inspire public discourse than the capitol square in Madison.

When I was in college in Madison in the 1990s and likewise when I visit today, I am instantly drawn to the great public spaces in Madison – State Street, Library Mall, the Memorial Union Terrace and the state capitol – all of which are good for a range of events, from people-watching to protesting. I like to wander through the capitol when it is much quieter than it has been in recent days. The capitol square gets used for other events, and hosts the best farmers market in the midwest and concerts in the summer.

Minneapolis has perhaps the best urban parks system in the country – lovely, extensive, mostly linear with plenty of lakes and quiet places to get away, but also some excellent gathering places. However, we don’t have that automatic central gathering place. Our state capitol is tragically separated from downtown by two interstates, and feels in a different world. For lack of a better public place in downtown Minneapolis, the default Twin Cities gathering place is the Mall of America, which is not public and something I find deeply disturbing.

Madison has proven, along with squares in the Middle East, that even in the age of Facebook and Twitter, a public gathering place is important for democracy to flourish, much less be born. Moreover, Bill Bryson’s timeless example of Capri demonstrates how critical public squares are for everyday gathering and conversation. Imagine that!

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