Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

National Building Museum's 2012 Atherton Lecture: Whose Space? Public Land in the Nation’s Capital

Wednesday May 9th
6:30pm - 8:00pm
National Building Museum
401 F Street NW, Washington, DC
Fee: Members, $12; Public, $20

From the NBM website:

What are the limits to the use of public space? And who gets to decide? From the Bonus Army comprised of World War One Veterans camped out on the banks of the Anacostia River to the current Occupy D.C. movement in McPherson Square Park, protests and demonstrations often test the boundaries of federal property and the first amendment. Architect, urban designer, and City College of New York Professor Lance Jay BrownFAIA discusses the complex role of open space in our ever urbanizing environment.

Following Professor Brown’s presentation, a panel of respondents explore how design can play a role in creating spaces that serve a variety of functions from large demonstrations to everyday use. Respondents include:
I will say that the issue isn't only about "how design can play a role in creating spaces that serve a variety of functions from large demonstrations to everyday use."   

Fundamentally, it's about how we plan and organize not just space, but our society, and how we organize for democracy, empowerment, and participation.  

(Also see the past blog entry, "Community cleanups (and other activities) as community building and civic engagement activities," which despite the title, also discusses these issues.)
Basic Concepts, Planning in the Public Domain
Societal relations and the context for planning, Planning in the Public Domain, diagram from the text by John Friedmann.

And this is very tough, because most communities lack the capacity building institutions that support the development and maintenance of community involvement, the kinds of things that groups like the League of Women Voters were known for back in the day.

It's about planning, in this case, planning for civic engagement, democracy, and empowered participation.  

But typically, "planning" agencies tasked with responsibility for managing land use don't look at their role more expansively.  

Yes, this is a responsibility that must be addressed at the highest levels of local government, but planners, given that they interact with residents more than most other government agencies, can be seen to have an ethical duty to promote civic engagement and democracy as part of their work.

It's one of the reasons that I argue that Comprehensive Land Use Plans (which in DC, is the closest the city has to a "business" or "vision"  plan) | Community Master Plans need to have an element on civic engagement, not just for rules and practices with regard to the agencies, but concerning the role of citizens in government and governance, and in the provision of spaces and places--not just public squares-that support engagement, even to the point of "contestation."

It means planning for these kinds of spaces in the context of a real estate development environment where most spaces that are created are private.
Don't Drive on My Sidewalk
Protest at the seizure of public space for a driveway by the Giant Supermarket chain at the Tivoli Square development in Columbia Heights, 2005.

It's about re-orienting "parks and recreation departments" to be able to provide for "community spaces" that are flexible, and for re-orienting public library buildings to provide community and cultural spaces, not just books and computers.  (In Arlington County, the Shirlington Library includes the Signature Theater.  In Montreal, a number of the public libraries also have "cultural centers" as part of the building footprint.)

It's about planning and financial support for entities that can be nonprofits, like BloomBars in Columbia Heights or Electric Maid in Takoma DC,  and a tricky one, considering First Amendment issues, support for social-community halls in churches that are made available to the public for braoder use, as places for community meetings (the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church is a site for many a meeting on social and political issues, from "peak oil" to foreign policy) and even concerts--the DC band Minor Threat/Fugazi played many of its early concerts in church halls.
Fugazi, Ignition, Moss Icon, Nation of Ulysses punk hardcore flyer
The Wilson Center was the social hall of the Central Presbyterian Church, located at 14th and Irving Streets NW in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC.

And it's about support for for-profit spaces, such as coffee shops like Qualia Coffee in Petworth, which provide community bulletin boards and meeting spaces open to community groups.
Bulletin board, Lamplighter Coffee Roasters, Richmond
Bulletin board at Lamplighter Coffee Roasters in Richmond, Virginia

It's about the provision of informational kiosks that people can post flyers on and that people can peruse to learn about what's happening in their neighborhoods.  
Information kiosk in the Adams Morgan neighborhood at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW
Information kiosk in the Adams Morgan neighborhood at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.

And support for community media, from the radical and independent, to for-profit community newspapers.  E.g., the Washington Post has so reduced its coverage of "local" news that without weekly newspapers like the Northwest Current.

And it's about the development of, as an agency of government, a Department of Neighborhoods/Community Development, focused on placemaking and citizen capacity building and self-help, rather than as an entity focused on building the political strength of the mayor.  

For example, compare Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods or the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program to DC's neighborhood services operation located within the Mayor's office.  The former organizations empower the residents to help themselves, while for the most part, the DC operation encourages dependence on government action.

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