Craig Bennet Affirms Public Spaces as Good Neighbors


The Art of Conversation oil by Michele Byrne  

by Craig Bennett

Anyone who has been to Europe will undoubtedly have noticed a major difference in the amount of public space featured in the continent’s cities and, perhaps to a lesser extent, even in its small towns and villages. In addition to streets where no vehicular traffic is allowed except for small delivery trucks or vans, there are spacious open plazas that are free of automobiles, trucks, buses, or anything of the like. The only thing moving in those commodious public spaces is people—usually lots of them. The edges of such spaces are often lined with the tables, chairs, and large umbrellas of outdoor cafés, where those people who are not busy walking around or just passing through are enjoying a leisurely espresso, a glass of wine, or a delicious meal without a server or manager trying to rush them to finish in order to clear their table for the next paying customers. The general atmosphere of the whole plaza is rather peaceful, unhurried, and welcoming to the casual wanderer.

Unfortunately, one would need to look long and hard for such places in the average American city or town. They may exist here and there (Seattle’s Pioneer Square comes to mind), but they are rare. That’s simply because the average American city or town developed many centuries after those in Europe. European cities grew organically and did so well before the advent of anything like the automobile. In the old sections of most European cities it’s rare to find a grid-like layout of streets and avenues. Buildings were situated mostly where it was convenient to build them. They were oriented not to face the street on which they were located but in whatever direction required the least alteration of the landscape, enabled the greatest amount of sunlight to shine through whatever windows would serve to admit it, and yielded to other considerations that are simply not applicable to the precise location and orientation of buildings in this country. In most cases, actual streets came much later.

And there was always space left for people. This is where the vendors set up their operations on market days and where dancing, puppet shows, magicians, and other entertainments occurred on religious and local holidays, of which there were many more in the course of a year than we enjoy in more recent times, especially in America. It’s where people gathered to hear proclamations read, speeches made, and witness the occasional public execution. In most towns and cities in medieval times and for some centuries after, it was a genuine center—the center—of public life. But, in the average American town or city, there is no comparable space.

However, there was a different set of values governing such things long ago. By the time America was growing, a prime consideration in town planning was efficiency. The gridwork design promoted that ideally—and in many municipalities that were planned much later, such things as parks and other such public areas were considered a waste of valuable space.

The oldest town in this country with which I’m familiar is Annapolis, where I lived for four years in the late nineteen-sixties while I was in the Navy. It is, indeed, an old town, having been first settled in 1649. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment had not yet begun, and the town was first laid out on European principles of the time. The city core is a rather complex arrangement of intersecting streets radiating from two “circles”—Church Circle and State Circle, where the governor’s mansion is located—that are close enough to each other to be almost adjacent. But down at the bottom of Main Street, by the city docks, is what served as a public place or plaza for the town’s growing population.

The town has changed immeasurably just since the time when I was living there, not to mention the many years before. But that original unoccupied (by construction) area, where the foot of Main Street broadens fan-like onto a broad, open space that continues down along the north side of the harbor, is still the place where people prefer to congregate. These days it’s a tourist trap that, fortunately, happens to feature a lot of parking space. Many years ago, it was where Annapolitans came to purchase freshly caught fish and other sea food from the fishing boats that lined up along the city docks. But thank goodness, it’s still essentially an open space with room for both people and events (such as the annual Annapolis boat show), as has been the case with such public spaces in towns and cities all over Europe from as far back as the earliest cities began to form.

I can’t help feeling that it’s rather a shame that we Americans need to travel to the other side of the Atlantic to find such pleasant, inviting, and socially valuable spaces in an urban environment. How much less of the current cultural divisiveness in this country might we find if we had more such spaces in the places where we live—places where all the residents of a town or city could come an mingle with one another and become more familiar with their neighbors and fellow citizens? It’s a little late for that now; but there may be a lesson here for the planners of suburbs and developers of extensive housing tracts. Let’s hope that they might heed it.

Craig H. Bennett holds degrees from Ursinus College and The Johns Hopkins University and is retired from the two-year college faculty of Valley Forge Military Academy and College. Prior to that he taught English in the Boyertown Area School District. He is the author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth.

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