People rush to rage, but we need, instead, to step back and consider the way forward. The larger question is this, “Where are we going?”
Cities, by definition, are shared spaces. We build various forms of infrastructure, including public spaces, to meet our collective needs and realize our personal aspirations. The promise of our public spaces is the assurance that we can live well together, creating places that we can all enjoy and call our own.
In theory, public space is the cornerstone of democracy. It’s where our social contract protects us all equally, and where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can join together—to celebrate victories or protest injustices—without fear that they will be profiled or harmed. In practice, though, throughout the United States, public space is where policing can be as comforting for some as it is dangerous for others. It is where we as a society seem to decide whose lives matter.
Recent events in cities across the country have brought close to home for many placemakers how important the design and management of our shared spaces—streets, parks, airports, markets, transit stations—is to the fulfillment of this promise. It’s a disheartening time, and one in which it would do us well to acknowledge the rather dark history of city building in this country. It is a history that—in different ways and in different times and places—has systematically disallowed certain people the right to access the benefits of public space.
From redlining, blockbusting, and gentrification to food deserts and racial disparities in law enforcement, the planning decisions, policies, and practices that have shaped today’s cities were not designed to benefit everyone equally. Over time some of the worst of these practices have been exposed and curtailed, but many of these deeply entrenched historical legacies remain, albeit in different guises, throughout our cities. Neighborhoods across America vary widely in the provision of dynamic, effective public spaces that can catalyze economic and social benefits. Those dominated by urban renewal projects, moribund industrial uses, or suburban enclaves, are generally very poorly served by parks, places for respite, transit, vibrant commercial districts, or pedestrian and bike friendly streets. No wonder we have narratives about the tales of two, three, four or five cities in the same geography. Day to day these differences may remain less visible, until violence, or war, or terror, or individual recklessness reminds us of the chasms that still divide.
Where can we go from here? Where must we go from here?
Activist and editor Darnell Moore offers a powerful vision of how the profound social crisis we are witnessing in the United States demands a new conversation on cities that “needs to move from the halls of think tanks and municipal development offices to the streets and neighborhoods where all manner of black people dwell”:
Imagine dialogues on neighborhood development and urban design occurring among protest participants. Imagine planned public talks hosted on neighbors’ stoops or in the foyers of housing projects. Imagine democratized approaches to urban planning that begins with the people, not the corporate class. Imagine the embedding of urban planners within movement collectives combatting anti-black racism and state sanctioned violence from Ferguson to Flatbush. That type of work is characteristic of the critical first steps needed to inform the creation of the “just” city.
—Darnell Moore, “Urban Spaces and the Mattering of Black Lives”
With this vision and urgency in mind, we ask our readers: As placemakers, businesspeople, city leaders, policymakers, and citizens, how can we confront these legacies of violence and exclusion, support those directly affected who are leading the healing process, and create safe and accessible places that offer social, economic, and recreational opportunities for all? How do we ensure the right of every community to not only use, but co-create public space?