The Public Realm Reclaimed – At Last

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Rochester’s public realm: reclaimed during a pandemic. Image by Maria Furgiuele

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And Chicago’s, in Ravenswood. Image by Jim Peters

In the end, my years-long campaign to alter the presence of the automobile in our cities has always had two underlying and perhaps not very well hidden objectives.

First has been a desire to reclaim and rebalance our public realm, so that high-speed motion and passage through and beyond our neighborhoods and urban centers is curtailed. I have aimed to prescribe urban places where we can easily walk, where one mode of motion is no longer privileged over every other.

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Asheville, NC, photo by Victor Dover

And I have tried to describe a public realm, where we lead our common life, that is memorial of our most precious narratives and citizens, that physically orients us to the places of highest significance in our urban fabric, that has a hierarchy not based on velocity but veracity.

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And second has been to rid my city, and every city, of the segregation of uses that has caused us to suffer separations between working and home and shopping and institutions and education and health care and everything else. This segregation has caused us to rely on our automobility, and has given us a plethora of auto-dominated detritus in our urban settings, locales where we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year with no benefit but pollution and an increasing destruction of our lives.

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Humza Deas for the New York Times

This segregation of use has long had other particularly sinister implications. Certainly the most significant is the concomitant segregation by race. The spatial and real separation of race and poverty has given our nation a sordid 20th century history of violence and injustice that stretches palpably into the 21st century: the waste and wrongness of all of this is still ours to set right.

Reflect for a moment on the destruction this kind of segregation has wrought on our urban places: urban renewal, ghettos and slums, “the projects,” white flight, and yes, suburban sprawl, since now the segregation of use and segregation by race has led to segregation by everything else: economics, religion, education, politics. We have managed to separate our lives from those that bear any difference from us, both physically and by every other means. What devastating inequity; what a waste of the promise and potential of human  civilization.

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Photo by Leopold Lambert

But back to my block and yours, and our collective public realm. Let us imagine a next city that goes like this: our individual cars are gone. If we need to go somewhere beyond our feet or bicycles, we call the pod. The pod can take us to the singular destinations that we don’t have on our street or the streets nearby: the museum, a certain church, a larger health facility, the big game, a concert, a place with a favorite taste and flavor, the city’s public market.

On our own street, though, we have new neighbors in the Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) that now occupy many of what were once garage sites. Other backyards feature offices, shops, a small pub or two, little restaurants,  a green grocer, and more.

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In the front yard, the same options pertain. All kinds of new uses can spring up near the sidewalk, which isn’t a “side” walk anymore, but more of a front walk. As we stroll up and down our block, or the next block, or the one down a bit, all sorts of new destinations have sprung up. Not in every yard, but wherever someone has something to offer the rest of us.

The public realm has become fully mixed, fully local, fully walkable, and fully ours to enjoy, experience, manipulate, add to or subtract from. At last.

There are only a few rules. Footprint: 400 to 500 square feet maximum. Height, say 35 or 40 feet – 2 plus stories and a gable. Anything attached must be removable/reversible without damage. No building in the front yards of National Historic Landmarks.

Otherwise, all bets are off.

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In the end, I am searching for a way to make our city, and any next city, able to withstand the difficult threats that are present, and that lie ahead. Whether a pandemic of flu virus or the increasingly violent oscillations of climate, new and exceptional forces are going to require us to realize that our urban places need almost total reconsideration. Imagine the next city.

Onward.

9 thoughts on “The Public Realm Reclaimed – At Last

  1. Very cool. Thanks for forwarding (and using the photo). Great essay. OK if I forward it to a few folks?

    Hang in there.

    >

  2. By “pod” are you referring to the autonomous vehicles that you talked about in your previous installment?

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