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I recently saw a news spot on the plight of the Salvation Army as they attempted to solicit funds during their annual holiday drive. The Salvation Army is a fairly benign group as solicitors go. Who can’t recall images of Santa Claus’ ringing bells on frosty streets or trumpeters playing carols for pennies. This is an enduring image of the American scene as wholesome, if not as saccharin, as a Norman Rockwell painting. Traditionally, the Army played on the street corners of our downtown areas. However, as shoppers left downtown for suburban malls, the Army followed. But now several Southern California malls, property rights in one hand and an anti-solicitation mandate in the other, have had the Salvation Army evicted from their premises and even, when they refused to leave, arrested.

These actions are indicative of a broader evolution of the meaning of public space and the scope of public life away from traditional notions and images of urbanism and urban form. While the incident is extreme, other, more subtle examples abound which illustrate the privatisation of the public space and life of the city. City agencies are constantly under pressure to assemble large parcels of land or superblocks to facilitate efficient redevelopment. One of the results of parcel consolidation is the vacation of existing public streets and right-of-ways. As the individual project is planned and even after it is finished, this abandonment of public spaces causes on-going difficulties in our understanding of the right of use and meaning of the spatial order of the city. Are the gardens, plazas, malls and paseos of the modern public/private partnership truly public, or are these modern day gathering spaces subtly, symbolically and negatively private?

At present, we rely increasingly on the private developer to plan the urban environment. A consequence of this reliance is a tendency for the development community to have the first crack at defining the scope of public benefits with terms that they can understand. This is natural and not necessarily wrong. Still, if the broadest concept of urban design quality is to be attained, the ability to define the purpose, function, feel and meaning of public space – and the need to ensure access to these spaces within the bounds of the rights of both the individual and the community cannot be left to the development community – alone.

This last statement contains my preconception that once outside of our respective domestic and by definition private situations, we enter a world which is and should be public and accessible. It is this dimension of Los Angeles which has too often been too dependent on the goodwill of private interests. In this city the nature of public life and the public’s perception of and access to this public life is too controlled by interests which only answer to themselves. One could easily interpret the slow growth or growth management issue as an attempt by disgruntled citizens to redefine the meaning and form of the public realm. Because of this movement, we at this point well understand the issues dear to middle and upper middle class interests, but we have not been able to develop adequate tools to hear the voices of those who speak softly or those who don’t have the time to speak at all as they struggle to make ends meet.

In his book Good City Form, Kevin Lynch defines development from the point of view of the individual. “Development,” he says, “is a process of becoming more competent and more richly connected…an increasing sense of connection to one’s environment in space and in time…” Clearly, this definition is based on an understanding of the needs of the individual human being. If development is to mean something more than the convenient marriage of the art of construction with the craft of land-use speculation, then the incentives directed towards the developer will have to be based on the establishment of a well-defined and consistent public agenda which takes full account of the needs required of the individual.

It is my belief that the ultimate quality of the design of our urban environment will be created by the reinvigoration and reinvention of the ideal of public space. At least part of this reinvention will be dependent on the ability of government to once again assume a constructive and creative leadership role in the process of the design of the city. The form of public space must be based on the acceptance and inclusion of more voices in the design and development process. The role of government is to ensure that equitable participation is realized and that the form of the city serves an essentially public purpose. The role of architects and developers is to concentrate on the physical expression of these aspirations. If one wants to assure one’s self of a well-designed city, one must not only hire the best developers and the best architects, but one must also ensure an open public design and development process.

John Kaliski

Back to January 1989  Newsletter