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America’s New Front Porches: Public Spaces

They bring people together. We need more of them.

Herald Square in New York City
Herald Square in New York City
In Meridian, Miss., the town where I grew up, people used to escape the summer heat by sitting on their front porches with a pitcher of lemonade. On those hot afternoons, they chatted with neighbors and strangers who passed by, sometimes inviting them up for a cool drink. They got to know each other that way.

Then air-conditioners showed up and moved everyone indoors.

Across America, we have turned inward to engage more with our televisions, computers, video games and cellphones instead of with each other. This has led to less understanding of people who are "other," less acceptance, less compassion, greater discord -- and sometimes, as recent events illustrate, even violence.

Today, our public spaces are America's front porches: places in our communities where people can mix and mingle, swap stories, do business, flirt, even protest -- and all the other things that humans do when they rub shoulders with one another. And we need them now as much as -- or more than -- ever.

During my 16 years as mayor of Meridian, I came to recognize the need for these kinds of public spaces. But I also came to see that they don't just spring up spontaneously. We must create them intentionally, and to do that we must have a vision for the kinds of communities that we want our children and grandchildren to inherit.

I recently joined a study tour organized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Gehl Institute to Copenhagen, where I saw in the parks, the streets, the sidewalks and the outdoor cafés a commitment to building a more social society whose public spaces promote the joy of mingling. Everywhere you go in Copenhagen, people mix with each other. They chat, they play, they listen to music or appreciate outdoor art together. They enjoy being part of the great congress of humanity.

These places are not necessarily grand. Many are tiny, simple spaces, perhaps just a patch of shaded ground between two houses with a couple of park benches. But they welcome everyone in the community. Many of them support physical activities like bike riding and walking. They promote health and they bring people together by connecting with everyday activities in ways that are easy and convenient.

We certainly have examples of intentional public space-making here in the United States. Take Chattanooga, for example. Surrounded by mountains and sitting on the banks of the Tennessee River, it had turned its back on its gorgeous natural assets. A six-lane highway separated the city from its river, which became horribly polluted. Civic leaders realized that they had to re-engage the community with its natural surroundings. They cleaned up the river and took out several highway lanes to create an outdoor complex with grand steps that link the city's magnificent aquarium with the river. On a nice day, people are everywhere, eating lunch, playing or just sitting and watching the world go by.

In New York City, planning officials did the unthinkable: They removed traffic lanes at Herald Square to create a temporary outdoor space with tables and chairs and landscaping for people to claim -- which they did, with great enthusiasm. Even in New York, people hungered for small, simple places where they could commune with each other.

These days, in my current role with Transportation for America, I often consult with communities contemplating major renewal projects. I advise them to ask themselves three questions:

Who were you? Why did the founders of your community build it where they did? Was it because of proximity to a river or railroad? To start a farming community or a trading community?

Who have you become? Look in the mirror. What choices has your community made over the years, and what have been the results of those choices? What essential element of your community's identity has been lost and how can it be recovered?

Who do you aspire to be? Look 40 years into the future and imagine the community you want your grandchildren to inherit. If you can't, you may not be ready to begin your work.

In Copenhagen, they recognize that rich community life requires rich social interaction in public spaces -- a social society, if you will. In America, we can create more vibrant and diverse communities for our children. And it's up to us as governors, mayors, council members, city planners and engaged citizens to make that happen.

So let's ask ourselves: Who do we want to be as a place, as a people? And then let's design public spaces that nurture that vision and open our minds to the understanding of "neighbor."

Chairman of Transportation for America and former mayor of Meridian, Miss.
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