We treasure our historic buildings in Salem. We love taking them in as we stroll by on foot, imagining them in their original context. The public spaces and passageways that allow us this experience are an integral part of what defines cities. Throughout history it has been the cities that have contained spaces that are the least presumptive about who should be there and what they are doing – spaces that truly embody what it means to be public. The porous boundaries of public spaces allow people to come and go without having to announce themselves or their intentions either formally or by their dress and demeanor. These are the vital interstices of the built environment: open plazas, squares, parks and other green spaces, promenades--and even ordinary streets and their sidewalks.
As communities grow in size, population and social diversity, these settings take on drama, becoming arenas of interaction among total strangers. Sociological orthodoxy once was that big-city public spaces induced a psychic retreat, that as the public-space experience became inherently more impersonal, the contact it encouraged was no longer one of predictable encounter and familiarity but of social distance. However, urban theorists have since come to view the interaction of public spaces as more complex and enriching. Indeed, they find benign value in the inclusiveness of public spaces. Sociologist Lyn Lofland considers the public realm the city’s “quintessential social territory”. Here, the encounters among individuals are socially meaningful in their patterned and cooperative nature: the choreography of non-colliding, the ignoring as social politeness, the restrained helpfulness. In accommodating others whose claims to be there are by definition as valid as their own, people enact a protocol to make advantageous use of public space without hindering everyone else’s. This voluntary deference creates a social bond, a level of trust that is a platform on which builds a notion of the common interest and a nascent civic awareness.
Jane Jacobs celebrated the everyday life of busy city streets and sidewalks, acclaiming its vignettes as “the small change from which the richness of social life and civility is formed.” For the historian Dolores Hayden even ordinary sites can have a “power of place,” a capacity to nurture public memory that informs a community spirit. All urban public spaces possess a civic orientation to one degree or another, “direct, palpable, and there,” the architect Peter Howe asserts, “for the purposes of reminding us both of who we are and who we might become.”
Public spaces are important for what they say about the capacity of cities to endow their residents and visitors with a broadly inclusive social experience that at the very least invites a feeling of mutuality, and at best a civic pride. Cities that can boast of robust and accessible open spaces can only do so if some sort of commitment, presumably shared broadly in the community, sustains those spaces against forces that would reduce their size or inappropriately restrict their use. The vigor of that commitment, its centrality to governance and policy-making, and its resilience in the face of efforts to undo it are indispensable components of healthy urban life.
Written by John Schneider Historic Salem, Inc. Board Member & Preservation Committee Chair
Lyn Lofland, A World of Strangers: Order and Action in Urban Public Space (New York: Basic Books, 1973)
Fran Tonkiss and Andrew Passey, eds., Trust and Civil Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961)
Delores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes and Public History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995)
Peter G. Rowe, Civic Realism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997)