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Thread: Red state / blue state thinking about the public realm.

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    Red state / blue state thinking about the public realm.

    Kunstler wrote more than 10 years ago: "The public realm of suburbia is impoverished. ..the public realm of suburbia is composed of parking lots, berms, planting strips, highway medians, and little else in the way of consciously embellished civic property. This is a problem because the public realm is the setting for our civic life, and where it exists in impoverished form, civic life suffers accordingly. The public realm is also the physical manifestation of the common good, and when you degrade and devalue it, as we do in suburbia, than you impair the ability of a group of people incorporated as a community to even think about the common good."

    First question: Is thinking about the public realm markedly different in Red and Blue states? How and why is it different, or not?

    Second question: Have the changes to America's public realm during our 60-year 'suburban experiment ' contributed to or accelerated a rightward political shift in America? If so, why?

    Request: This thread is about perceptions about the character and importance of the Public Realm. Please do not mention specific politicians or political parties, but use the colors Red and Blue as a shorthand if necessary.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by peterForbes View post
    Kunstler wrote more than 10 years ago: "The public realm of suburbia is impoverished. ..the public realm of suburbia is composed of parking lots, berms, planting strips, highway medians, and little else in the way of consciously embellished civic property. This is a problem because the public realm is the setting for our civic life, and where it exists in impoverished form, civic life suffers accordingly. The public realm is also the physical manifestation of the common good, and when you degrade and devalue it, as we do in suburbia, than you impair the ability of a group of people incorporated as a community to even think about the common good."

    First question: Is thinking about the public realm markedly different in Red and Blue states? How and why is it different, or not?

    Second question: Have the changes to America's public realm during our 60-year 'suburban experiment ' contributed to or accelerated a rightward political shift in America? If so, why?

    Request: This thread is about perceptions about the character and importance of the Public Realm. Please do not mention specific politicians or political parties, but use the colors Red and Blue as a shorthand if necessary.
    I don't know how to answer the first non-nuanced, binary construct, as the human brain's expression of preferences is along a spectrum, and changes over time and by circumstance; in addition, individuals able to effect action can be found in both red and blue areas.

    The second question I think I can handle as framed - IMHO I think certain areas that don't privilege self-powered mobility & safety for such modes have fostered some isolationism, which IMHO favors hierarchical individualism; not married to that assertion though. Couple that with the fact that modern rich North American life is essentially an exercise in moving between conditioned boxes, and you create conditions that can favor isolation and better chance to foster fear.

    But I will say that these 'red-blue' tendencies appear to be a combination of hard-wiring and some learned behavior in our brains, and certain aspects of these tendencies appear to express themselves in political preferences - I can't say the literature is clear on this yet. Anecdotally, IME I feel the farther down the rightward spectrum you go, generally the less I like the built environment, especially in residential areas where the home and property are an advertisement for social status [although I am right now taking a break from a presentation on stormwater design, and there are plenty of examples of what we would call "blue ideas" in this context that crop up in "red areas", maybe a testament to the utility and power of good design...].

    .02
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    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Kunstler is a myopic is the Ron Paul/Lyndon LaRouche of urban planning and should be treated as such. 17 of the top 20 cities in the US are run by Democrats, ie Houston, Dallas and Atlanta...even Salt Lake City and Boise have Democrats for mayors. In my experience red/blue divide matters little in how cities are run. Suburbs are seeing their demographics change...thus many solidly red or blue 'burbs are becoming more purple. The shift rightward in this country can better be explained through historical and political science explanations rather than through urban form.

    As for suburbs what Kunstler misses that many suburbs were once independent cities with their own sense of place. Most major cities have the "souless" seas for parking lots, planting strips and highway medians.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon View post
    Kunstler is a myopic is the Ron Paul/Lyndon LaRouche of urban planning and should be treated as such. 17 of the top 20 cities in the US are run by Democrats, ie Houston, Dallas and Atlanta...even Salt Lake City and Boise have Democrats for mayors. In my experience red/blue divide matters little in how cities are run. Suburbs are seeing their demographics change...thus many solidly red or blue 'burbs are becoming more purple. The shift rightward in this country can better be explained through historical and political science explanations rather than through urban form.

    As for suburbs what Kunstler misses that many suburbs were once independent cities with their own sense of place. Most major cities have the "souless" seas for parking lots, planting strips and highway medians.
    I'm sure Kunstler would agree with you that turning a city into what he'd call an 'automobile slum' is a sure-fire way to mess up a place.

    Are you ok with his definition of the 'public realm', or can you point to another/better definition of that idea?

    I live in what is now a suburb that was once an independent city and the challenge for my town is maintaining our unique sense of place and our financial independence as a city.

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    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by peterForbes View post
    I'm sure Kunstler would agree with you that turning a city into what he'd call an 'automobile slum' is a sure-fire way to mess up a place.
    I am almost certain I never said that...but I do occasionally post when I am drunk so I cannot rule it out. I have no malice to cars and think that cars are a net benefit to cities and society as a whole. Cities have done some stupid things around design as it relates to cars but you cannot underestimate the economic benefit that cars, lorries and just road transportation have to cities.

    Are you ok with his definition of the 'public realm', or can you point to another/better definition of that idea?
    I cannot honestly recall his definition.

    I live in what is now a suburb that was once an independent city and the challenge for my town is maintaining our unique sense of place and our financial independence as a city.
    That is a city management issue. Without your proximity to Boston chances are your community would be far worse off. My community is like your but we have financially benefited from our proximity to Phoenix. The culture of the community has changed over the past 40 years and the sense of place is different but that is more of a funtion of the 200,000 people that have moved here over that time. Parks are better, schools are better and the access to jobs are better. Granted it is no longer the sleeply little hamlet of 10,000 people who mostly worked on farms but if they want that they can and many have moved farther out. I am a big fan of Tiebout and people voting with their feet.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    We've discussed Kunstler on here before:

    http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showt...light=kunstler

    http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showt...light=kunstler

    IIRC the general consensus is that Kunstler is a b.s. artist.

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Regardless of how one feels about Kunstler overall, I do agree with the assessment that the public realm in suburban settings has been greatly compromised. He is not the first or last to make that observation. What he is talking about, of course, is the public square, green, plaza or other centralized (and there can be more than one) physical space where people protest, celebrate, and undertake other collective activities. Instead, suburban social life tends to revolve around what I might call fractured “special interest groups.” Kids’ soccer games, book clubs, mall or other shopping centers and the like. It means that you generally interact with people around a common overlapping interest instead of as citizens-at-large.

    But in the bigger picture, I am not convinced that this same shift has not occurred everywhere in America. We do not socialize with one another the way we used to, regardless of where we live. Our “town square” is, increasingly, what I might call “digital special interest groups.” It is very splintered and fractured with increasingly little internal cohesion of the variety we used to experience before the age of the internet. And I do think this is a larger trajectory is created by numerous forces like electricity, telephones, and the automobile.

    So, to get at your questions, no, I don’t think public space is treated differently in Red and Blue communities. I don’t see how one’s political philosophy (which is often changing over time anyway and overlaps with a myriad of other concerns) would impact how one designs and interacts with space, but if you feel they do, I would be curious to hear how you see it. There could be an argument there, I just don’t see it at this point.

    What I think the shrinking public realm has done in our society is create less and less discourse across political lines. And I wonder if this contributes to a widening divide. Because we can self-select who we interact with more readily, we are in fewer positions where we HAVE to deal with someone who, say, exhibits different values than you. That means compromise, understanding others’ points of view and accommodating opinions that are not your own can be avoided by running to the cover of groups of “like-minded” people. But even moving only within groups where one’s opinions are more in line with others does not eliminate the possibility of disagreements around key issues.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    He is not the first or last to make that observation. What he is talking about, of course, is the public square, green, plaza or other centralized (and there can be more than one) physical space where people protest, celebrate, and undertake other collective activities. Instead, suburban social life tends to revolve around what I might call fractured “special interest groups.” ...

    What I think the shrinking public realm has done in our society is create less and less discourse across political lines. And I wonder if this contributes to a widening divide. Because we can self-select who we interact with more readily, we are in fewer positions where we HAVE to deal with someone who, say, exhibits different values than you. ...

    That’s how I see it, anyway.
    Kerouac foresaw this many years ago on the road when he walked down the street, looked in the houses, and saw the blue glow.
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    Give a man a gun, and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank, and he can rob the world.

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    I think time / history has as much to do with this concept as anything else. For example, during the 1940s and 1950s (WWII and the immediate post-war era), American conformism and what's best for society collectively were considered to be more important than individual needs, desires, or concerns. The opposite is true today - people nowadays generally do what they want to, but government / society doesn't accomplish much of anything, especially at the federal level. If the public realm has deteriorated as a concept in our cities and towns across America, perhaps it's because civic life and the culture of civic engagement that seemed to be more popular and well-regarded in the mid-20th century has been largely wiped out and replaced with a "me first" culture.

    Ever noticed how it seems like the older, pre-Baby Boomer generations are the only ones who ever took voting seriously? America in general lacks a civic culture. Not sure how much of this can be ascribed to geography. Yes, some parts of the country have more of a civic-minded, community-oriented culture than others, but again, I think historical trends have as much to do with the decline in the importance of "public realms" as anything else.

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    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    I think time / history has as much to do with this concept as anything else. For example, during the 1940s and 1950s (WWII and the immediate post-war era), American conformism and what's best for society collectively were considered to be more important than individual needs, desires, or concerns. The opposite is true today - people nowadays generally do what they want to, but government / society doesn't accomplish much of anything, especially at the federal level. If the public realm has deteriorated as a concept in our cities and towns across America, perhaps it's because civic life and the culture of civic engagement that seemed to be more popular and well-regarded in the mid-20th century has been largely wiped out and replaced with a "me first" culture.

    Ever noticed how it seems like the older, pre-Baby Boomer generations are the only ones who ever took voting seriously? America in general lacks a civic culture. Not sure how much of this can be ascribed to geography. Yes, some parts of the country have more of a civic-minded, community-oriented culture than others, but again, I think historical trends have as much to do with the decline in the importance of "public realms" as anything else.
    Putnam's Bowling Alone. It's a fascinating read.
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by kjel View post
    Putnam's Bowling Alone. It's a fascinating read.
    He had a white paper out a couple years ago discussing how he has different conclusions now and doesn't necessarily think that today everything in that book is robust. I might look for it this weekend in between chores...

    Nevertheless I'm definitely on board with the physical lack of public realm. Maybe when gas becomes 8.00/gal the public realm will return.
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    Cyburbian developmentguru's avatar
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    Well, factor in the regionalism aspect of things. In my general area, there is little desire of citizens to interact with one another at all. Attempting to bring sidewalks into neighborhoods is fought because it "brings criminals through my yard" or "invites others to damage my property". Attempting to limit fence height in rear yards is met with "6' isn't tall enough because some people can see over that" and "I don't want anybody seeing what's in my back yard so they can come steal it". Attempting to bring back classic housing design is met with "I don't want to have to sit on my front porch and deal with people". Attempting to revitalize activity in downtown is met with "we don't want bars and the people that frequent them". Attempting to diversify housing stock is met with "multi-family breeds crime, noise, and trash" and "renters don't care about where they live and my investment shouldn't be threatened by their presence".

    Sometimes, when people have never dealt with the reality of having a certain amount of space and not having the ability to have their own 1-5 acre lots or follow regulations that may be personally inconveniencing but better for the community...well, they have an unrealistic fear of the public realm and don't see it as something they should be concerned with.

    I realize it is 2012, but there is - again, based on the area sometimes - still a good deal of this. The public realm is seen as where I drive my car before I retreat back into my fortress of safety.

    To quote ColoGI: "Couple that with the fact that modern rich North American life is essentially an exercise in moving between conditioned boxes, and you create conditions that can favor isolation and better chance to foster fear." There ya go.
    "In our profession, a plan that everyone dislikes for different reasons is a success. A plan everyone dislikes for the same reason is a failure. And a plan that everyone likes for the same reason is an act of God." - Richard Carson

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    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    The big hole in this idea of "the public realm" is that in much of the US -- and for most Americans -- there never was much of a "public realm" for the public to gather. Sorry, but historically, many, if not most, towns, even those that later grew into cities simply started as crossroads or stagecoach/railroad stops or trading posts/mercantiles. Looking at cities today, yeah, there might be a fancy square downtown that's now used "the public realm", but it's likely the result of some urban renewal project from decades ago, not something indigenous to cities. Very few American towns or cities were actually planned around public squares, and few of those original footprints survive. Most cities were built with no more thought to the "public" than today's suburbs have been.

    When you look at outlying city neighborhoods, you find almost no public spaces that were intended to be "public gathering places", just areas designated for residences, businesses, and industry. The wealthiest -- or what were once the wealthiest -- neighborhoods of some cities seem to have these public spaces but they were frequently built by developers who wanted give their developments prestige or cachet. Washington Park in Troy, NY, is an example of a private park built for the property owners abutting it.

    Prior to zoning, there was no authority to tell people what they could or could not do with their land, so developers built what made them money, and unless towns and cities were far-seeing enough to purchase land for public uses early on or some benefactor donated land, towns and cities just didn't have public parks. The great urban parks that Olmstead designed were originally on the periphery of their cities. They are in the hearts of cities now only because the cities grew up around them, and some of Olmstead's parks closer to the hearts of cities were carved up and/or destroyed to meet the needs of cities for space (see Buffalo's Upper and Lower Terrace and Front Park).
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    When you look at outlying city neighborhoods, you find almost no public spaces that were intended to be "public gathering places", just areas designated for residences, businesses, and industry. The wealthiest -- or what were once the wealthiest -- neighborhoods of some cities seem to have these public spaces but they were frequently built by developers who wanted give their developments prestige or cachet. Washington Park in Troy, NY, is an example of a private park built for the property owners abutting it.

    Prior to zoning, there was no authority to tell people what they could or could not do with their land, so developers built what made them money, and unless towns and cities were far-seeing enough to purchase land for public uses early on or some benefactor donated land, towns and cities just didn't have public parks. The great urban parks that Olmstead designed were originally on the periphery of their cities. They are in the hearts of cities now only because the cities grew up around them, and some of Olmstead's parks closer to the hearts of cities were carved up and/or destroyed to meet the needs of cities for space (see Buffalo's Upper and Lower Terrace and Front Park).
    Note the point of the argument that "developers" slapped up developments and didn't bother to include public places. Hence the problems and the attempts to reverse them. That is: just because it got built didn't mean it was the right way to do things.
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    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Note the point of the argument that "developers" slapped up developments and didn't bother to include public places. Hence the problems and the attempts to reverse them. That is: just because it got built didn't mean it was the right way to do things.
    I certainly won't argue that, and I certainly won't argue against public spaces being a good idea. My point, though, is that cities weren't inherently built "better" than today's suburbs with public spaces an integral part of their "plans" but pretty much just the way suburbs have been. Public spaces have almost always been after thoughts and "add ons" in the US whether it's a city in 1859 or a suburb in 1959. Like cities, many suburbs have attempted to reserve some places as public space and/or add public spaces after the fact, which is much easier to do in areas where growth and land values are falling/stagnant/growing slowly than in booming areas.

    The entire "cities = good, suburbs = bad" BS that Kunstler and some others attempt to foist on the public is just that, BS. What we think of suburbs today are simply the extension of development beyond the town/city limits. In many places, you can't tell where the "city" stops and the "suburb" starts. In those parts of the country where cities are allowed to annex outlying areas, some of what was once suburbs have become parts of cities.

    The lack of public "connectedness", as Wahday noted, is really a societal thing, NOT a particularly suburban thing. I live in a city. I put up a chain link fence around my backyard when I first moved in to keep my dog from wandering, and I specifically chose black fabric chain link so that the fence would "disappear" and not disconnect me from my neighbors. Well, the guy who moved in next door two years ago has surrounded his yard with six foot high stockade fencing for "privacy" on all sides despite a perfectly sound fence already existing on my side and my permission to run his fence up to mine.
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    I certainly won't argue that, and I certainly won't argue against public spaces being a good idea. My point, though, is that cities weren't inherently built "better" than today's suburbs with public spaces an integral part of their "plans" but pretty much just the way suburbs have been. Public spaces have almost always been after thoughts and "add ons" in the US whether it's a city in 1859 or a suburb in 1959.
    Ah, got it. Agreed, I think many tend to conflate some good aspects as a good job overall. Cities are a recent phenomenon for many and there is no reason to think we know how to arrange them (e.g. I'm not a new urbanist fanboy).
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    I doubt there's much of a difference. Everybody's a liberal when it comes to spending public money to make their own neighborhood beautiful. Salt Lake City has some of the better downtown public spaces I've seen in a big city downtown, as well as one of the best (and partially free) urban light rail transit system, and it's also quite possibly the most conservative major city in the country. I believe that ideologically-based arguments for not spending money and effort on the public realm only apply to OTHER people's communities, not to one's own.

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    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    I doubt there's much of a difference. Everybody's a liberal when it comes to spending public money to make their own neighborhood beautiful. Salt Lake City has some of the better downtown public spaces I've seen in a big city downtown, as well as one of the best (and partially free) urban light rail transit system, and it's also quite possibly the most conservative major city in the country. I believe that ideologically-based arguments for not spending money and effort on the public realm only apply to OTHER people's communities, not to one's own.
    Well said. It's not unlike how everybody hates "pork barrel spending" unless said pork is spent in their own neighborhood or area!
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    Well said. It's not unlike how everybody hates "pork barrel spending" unless said pork is spent in their own neighborhood or area!
    Yep. Another great example is Colorado Springs. You can't beat the ultra-Republican city for public realm investment - Monument Valley, Shook's Run, Acacia Park, Antlers Park, the Ivywild Renewal Plan, the great museums for such a small city...

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