by Roberta Brandes Gratz

Fundamentally I am an urbanist, and one of my bottom lines is that the best experts about a place are its users.

Many cities have so destroyed their heritage, that it is a problem now to build a legacy. Heritage is not just in parks, it’s in the cityscape, on the streets, in its fabric. Very seldom do I find a city in this country that isn’t at least 50% parking lots. You can’t build a city from parking lots. But many of you have articulated a path that leads again and again to success — an organic approach, with the strength of the small step. Even if you have a master plan, it still must proceed one step at a time, rebuilding as you go along.

We have built a form that does not function. And we have done it by design, not by chance. We have allowed the car and highway engineers to design and shape our lives… The myth prevails that Americans are freer and more independent. Free, that is, to sit in traffic and depend upon the automobile for every essential function and trivial errand. The car, highways and parking lots built since the 1950s have so separated, segregated and isolated the American people that we have become pockets of hostile aliens. The garage door has replaced the front door, the parking lot the public steps leading to City Hall, and the underground garage the office building lobby.

We do not communicate, relate or connect as a people. And we have few public places left to do that even when we choose to do so. We have eliminated public places from the physical and mental geography of the country. Without the variety of common grounds on which a diverse people mix and mingle in an unplanned manner, the health of the commonweal is undermined.

The national landscape no longer differentiates between places. The look of anywhere prevails. And if people don’t know and feel where they are, they don’t know who they are… We despair but we accept these physical changes as inevitable; allow those who benefit financially and professionally to rationalize its continuance…

Even many of what are supposed to be public spaces or parks don’t work as genuine public spaces or parks. Years ago when I was researching The Living City, I took a sightseeing bus tour around downtown Houston. We drove past an inviting, lush park, as devoid of people as the streets. I asked the driver “Where is everybody? Doesn’t anybody use this park?” “Oh, you should see it at lunchtime,” he replied. I had seen this phenomenon in other cities and suddenly it hit me. The new definition of urban park was ‘lunchroom.’

Too many parks, waterfronts and open spaces serve worker populations well at lunchtime, serve leisure time crowds well with organized entertainment, and serve sports audiences well for competitive events. Between planned events, these public places sit empty because a diverse mixture of people do not live, work, visit and spend leisure time in the vicinity, keeping the place populated throughout the day.

A true public space should not need to be programmed to draw people. There must be user population to bring on foot the variety of humanity.

Public discourse daily focuses on strengthening family values, rebuilding community, integrating people, building secure communities, eliminating crime. The importance of ‘place’, of downtown, of the ‘somewhere’ that marks a community is not factored in. Yet, across the country, efforts abound to recreate destroyed public places, rebuild undermined downtowns, and repopulate the stores on Main Street and the upstairs apartments. The groups leading the efforts are actually repairing democracy itself.

A true center can come in many forms. It is the activity, not the architecture or physical form that defines it… True civic centers, genuine public squares cannot be automobile destinations. They must be the natural crossroads of civic life. Much the same can be said about parks. Vitality of place will always be a struggle anyplace where the majority of users get there by car. Unless of course it is a large natural resource at the edge of the community or out of town.

The historic values lost in this country, human connections broken, and personal networks severed, did not happen naturally. Their destruction was planned, designed and fully engineered… The process of renewal from the ground up must shape itself according to the foundation that was destroyed. Public places, neighborhood or downtown parks, open spaces, waterfronts and greenways are all good places for the rebuilding process to begin. Connections existed once, and must again.

Everywhere communities want their community restored, the center revived, parks restored, new open spaces created, waterfronts reclaimed. They want places where walking is more than a planned health routine, and driving is optional; where sidewalks are valued more than roadbeds, and where trees are not removed by traffic engineers who declare them safety hazards.

The rules of the day got us to this dysfunctional form in the first place. They are the rules that keep us here. They must be broken.