COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Fear, Isolation, and Public Space

Apr 30, 2004
Dec 14, 2017

By Fred Kent

Fear is the big story of our times, dominating what we learn in the media and hear from the Bush Administration. We are surrounded with uneasy news about terrorism, WMDs, Iraq, military expenditures, homeland security, and crime, all coming from men who never seem to smile. I've grown depressed just thinking about how scary the world now appears.

Local officials were afraid that "undesirables" would congregate there. The result was that no one could really gather in this lovely park.

A few weeks ago I was riding the New York subway when a mother pushed her baby carriage onto the train, and I began noting how fear manifests itself deep in the heart of our own communities. I visit many cities around the world each year as part of my work studying public spaces, and see the effect of this fear on people's day-to-day lives.

The fortress mentality results in public spaces that deny comfortable use.

I remembered a small and beautiful park in Barcelona, where the benches had been removed and replaced with uninviting chairs, widely separated and bolted to the ground. An older couple sat in the park with an even older woman (who looked to be one of their mothers), but they could hardly hear each other with the chairs so far apart. The park was near a low-income neighborhood and the local officials were afraid that "undesirables" would congregate there. The result was that no one could really gather in this lovely park. We had all become "undesirables."

Then I recalled a community near Seattle where residents told me they didn't want sidewalks because they were afraid of who might walk on them. Yet without sidewalks, most children in this neighborhood have to be driven to school because it is not safe to walk.

I considered communities in many parts of the world where traffic engineers view pedestrians as an obstacle to the smooth flow of traffic. Many people in these places have become afraid of even taking a walk, especially children and seniors. Surprisingly, surveys in many communities, including one we recently did in Long Beach, California, found that people had more concerns about pedestrian safety, noise and traffic than about crime in their community.

As the train rattled beneath the streets of Manhattan, my thoughts drifted to the people who live in gated communities, folks afraid of crime, traffic, and perhaps uncomfortable with anyone not like them. I felt sad about the spread of these walled-off neighborhoods and many people's desire to always be in a car, isolated from everyone and everything.

It is fear that drives us to construct buildings that are isolated fortresses protected by ugly barriers.

As I became more and more depressed about all this, my attention came back to the subway car and all the people riding with me. Looking around, there were people with roots in every corner of the earth, and I felt comfortable and very safe--especially when I noticed the little girl in a stroller watching all these same people with delighted curiosity. I suddenly felt better, more connected to the world and less afraid. (And I felt sorry for the many other little girls across America strapped into their car seats who would never have this experience, because they were usually cut off from this precious human contact.)

It sometimes seems that fear controls our lives to such an extent that we are almost incapacitated. It is fear that drives us to buy guns for protection, to eye anyone who looks foreign or different with suspicion, to construct buildings that are isolated fortresses protected by ugly barriers, and to accept parks and public places that are designed to be looked at but not used. It is a truly sad situation if we think we can only survive in the larger world by being afraid of everyone else. The truth is that we might find more security in the human connections of a subway car than the isolation of a gated community.

Fred Kent is executive director of Project for Public Spaces.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space