The importance of a PUBLIC space
Published: Thursday, May 1, 2003
Updated: Sunday, October 17, 2010 08:10
Public Space and Social Justice
The city of Tacoma is going through a tremendous revitalization process, one that has many people excited about an urban vibrancy that has been lacking for decades.
An integral part of this revitalization is the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) campus. UWT plays a crucial role in drawing businesses and people into the downtown area, producing both economic and social capital for the city.
As urban studies students, we admire the increased vitality of the downtown destination area, but we also are concerned about the production of open and meaningful public spaces for diverse social interactions and the exchange of ideas between different members of our community. We worry that truly public space where all people are welcomed is increasingly limited, restricting our ability to build a "socially just" city.
The maintenance of public space in a city is important because it welcomes the free exchange of ideas and promotes social interaction between diverse groups, allowing us to learn more about each other and rely less on stereotypes.
Elements such as the built environment, policing, and location all frame how "public" a place is, affecting how people perceive and behave in the space. Historic preservation, new businesses, and tourist attractions have all helped to resuscitate the area, drawing in a middle class, consumer population that is vital to the area's economic growth.
Yet gentrification also displaces people who are not welcomed in revitalized urban places. Only when all our citizens feel they have a "right to the city" will we be able to build socially just places.
In this article we present our thoughts on these issues and ask you to reflect on them and respond to us (see below).
The built landscape is an important part of the production of public spaces. It includes the buildings, landscape, open areas, sitting places, and even the noises and amount of sunlight that exist in a space, whether naturally or by design. When someone enters a space they "read" or interpret clues from the built environment to understand what type of behavior is expected, activity is permitted, and who is welcome to use the space. It is in this process that people also assess if a space is public or private. Specific signage may dictate the type of use or behavior allowed in a given area ("members only," "no sitting"). In other settings, gates, security guards, and cameras provide indications about who is welcome and what kinds of behaviors are tolerated.
The built environment frames the production of public spaces at UWT as well. Although the Master Plan indicates a large urban park will be built within the final 40-acre campus site, currently the majority of open space is comprised of a pathway of cement steps, creating a pedestrian corridor between two main streets, Pacific Avenue and Jefferson Street.
The steps immediately draw a person's eyes from the street to the large passageway, but it also seems that once the passerby enters the campus the lack of green space, seating, and people create a feeling of isolation. How may we reconcile this open invitation that the stairs offer with the feeling that they encourage us to move along rather than to stop and interact with others?
The built environment is also reflective of a society's values. Our country was founded on ideals of free and open public assembly, debate, and possible dissent. Having public spaces where we may gather and voice our opinions is critical to the maintenance of our democratic ideals.
The need for an urban public space where democracy can be manifested through actions such as demonstrations, public readings, or other forms of expression cannot be underestimated.
Historically it has been the people's use of public forums that has increased the success of realizing social gains and eliminating injustices. Indeed, without truly public spaces in our cities, the geography of democracy is severely restricted, and democracy itself becomes imperiled. It could be argued we are presently in a time where having access to and using public space is vital to maintaining the democratic values we all believe in.
College campuses have historically been fertile places to act out the freedom to question, disagree, and oppose injustices. Campuses have been central to the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, women's liberation, and war demonstrations (for and against). We need to recognize the critical role student activism has played in politics and in developing citizens who reflect upon the importance of political, social, and cultural issues.
UWT should support student organizations by constructing a public space where students feel comfortable gathering. This would facilitate group activities and allow students to share resources and information. Having a space where students can network with one another and the community is vital to a successful campus setting.
Moreover, the more that people use the campus as a place to congregate and voice opinions, the safer it will be.
A Call for Readers' Reactions
As college students and faculty at UWT, it is easy to say we believe in social equity and inclusion, but when people enter the campus do they "read" the landscape (built and social) as open and inviting, or as a place which prohibits activities and limits access? Do we truly value all people from every class in society, or does the built environment promote the politics of exclusion and alienation? As citizens, we should be concerned with the rights of all people to use and access our public spaces, whether wealthy consumers or displaced persons.
As we watch the UWT campus grow and develop, we must consider the value of creating a campus environment that provides spaces for the free exchange of ideas and social interaction in our diverse community for this is what makes a place truly public.