When Joseph P. Riley Jr. first ran for mayor of Charleston, S.C., in 1975, he wanted to heal racial tensions in a deeply Southern city where the Civil War began. Visiting older European cities, he found his signature strategy. He saw people of all socioeconomic classes enjoying these cities’ fine public spaces. Riley became convinced that when the public realm -- streets, squares and parks -- is built well, the bonds of citizenship are reinforced. People know that everyone owns it.
Riley, who last month concluded four decades as Charleston’s mayor, calls himself a disciple of the urbanist William Whyte, who first came to prominence as the author of The Organization Man in 1956. While working with the New York City Planning Commission, Whyte pioneered the use of direct observation to study pedestrian behavior, work that led to two influential books: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980 and 1988’s City: Rediscovering the Center. That last book, which I read shortly after it came out, pulses with energy and is still as vibrant and relevant today as when it was first released.
Amanda Burden had Whyte as a mentor. As New York City’s planning director under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she focused on the impact of urban design on the everyday lives of people. “If there is any single lesson I’ve learned, it is that public spaces have power,” she said in a 2014 speech. “It’s not just the people using them, it’s an even greater number of people who feel better about their city just knowing they’re there.” Burden is credited as a major force in saving the High Line, transforming the abandoned elevated railway into an urban park that now gets about 5 million visitors annually.
One of the reasons that public spaces are underutilized as tools to bring citizens together is that there are real obstacles to doing it right. Finding the money is always going to be a challenge, of course, but there are other barriers. Fred Kent, who worked with Whyte and went on to start the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, talks about how designers, architects and planners focus on order and control, too often leaving the community out of the conversation. Burden talks about how developers see people only as customers. They wanted, for example, to put shops along the High Line. That, she said, would have made it a mall, not a park.
Today Charleston boasts a collection of public spaces that rivals much of what Riley saw in Europe four decades ago. For Riley, the key is the quality of those spaces. When “we work hard to make it nice,” he says, the average citizen appreciates that, “and their citizenship becomes more valuable.” No one knows better than those who lead our cities how important that civic bond is to effective governance.