Friday, April 11, 2014

Public Plazas in Springtime

It was about a year ago when the finish line of the Boston Marathon was disrupted by domestic terrorism.  In the days that followed, there were many who spoke about a fear of public places and an unwillingness to return to them.

In response, I wrote that interaction in public places was a necessary component of a free society.  While a respite from plazas and parks was understandable, we owed it to our neighbors and to ourselves to return to the public realm as soon as possible.

And we did so, although surely more because of our ability to put bad times into context rather than because of any eloquence I brought to the topic.  Last weekend, my wife met a group of girlfriends for brunch in a restaurant fronting a downtown plaza.  For days afterward, she recalled with delight the scenes of people walking dogs, sipping coffee, and enjoying the sociability of a warm Saturday morning.

Public plazas are an essential place of public interaction and discourse, which must be protected and enhanced for societies to be free.

Luckily for us, our North Bay plazas are generally peaceable places.  But that isn’t true elsewhere in the world.  Public places are where civil dissent against authoritarian rule ferments.  Most recently, this was true of Independence Square in Kiev where Ukrainians gathered to argue for a more European style of government.  The movement eventually pushed President Viktor Yanukovych into exile, a story of which the final chapters are still being written.

Independence Square was only the most recent example of public places as a site of civil dissent, a list that also includes Tahrir Square in Cairo, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and even the Parisian boulevards of the 19th century.

Writing in Atlantic Cities, Matt Ford offers a brief history of the role of public plazas in dictatorships, both in overturning dictators and in the design of public places to suppress dissent.  (I don’t find that Ford reaches any overarching conclusions, but the historical review is worthwhile.)

On a more domestic front, former New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden recently spoke to a TED gathering about public places in New York City.  Burden has appeared in this blog previously when I described her in my review of the movie “Urbanized” as “an over-dressed, role-playing drone.” 

Unfortunately, she doesn’t come off much better in the TED video.  Her insights about public places could have come directly from college textbooks.  But, however vapid and derivative her insights and ideas, she used the position of New York City Planning Director to accomplish good things for her city, for which she deserves credit.

But even more important than articles and videos about public plazas, it’s springtime and a weekend approaches.  Whatever else may be in your plans, you owe it to yourself and to your community to visit a public plaza this weekend.  Perhaps I’ll see you there.

And if you live in a community that lacks a plaza such as Healdsburg Town Square, Sonoma Plaza, Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, or even Putnam Plaza in Petaluma, perhaps you can also take a few minutes to email your city council about your disappointment in the deficiency.  I’d be on your side as would most believers in democracy and the freedom of assembly.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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