"Go" is Not A Five Letter Word

At this month’s meeting of the Community Design Forum we heard from a group of LSU landscape architecture students (despite the fact that they were from LSU, they seemed to be very sharp, sane, intelligent people). Their class had undertaken a number of theoretical projects in and around downtown Chattanooga. It was a lot of fun to see student work and it’s trademark naïveté (read: primary strength). Students with fresh eyes produce great ideas because they have not yet learned what is not possible. Of course, our downtown has had the benefit of 30 years of student work. The vast majority of the “real” work that has been done downtown in the past couple of decades exists on sites that have been dreamed on by students. Over the past couple of years we have had the odd group of students return from time to time to work. We are, however, worse off for not having an institutionalized studio here year in year out.

Nothing to do with the post...
The Bear doesn't need a reason.
The student work offered me a reminder of a topic I have been planning to write about for some time. That topic is the importance of resisting the privatization of public space.

For a variety of reasons, citizens both locally and nationally and from each end of the political spectrum are decrying the size and reach of government. Everybody has their pet complaint whether it's taxes, bailouts, healthcare, public art, or any of the myriad other wastes. For my part, I am in favor of a massive reduction of government scale and reach. That said, not all government is bad, there are a number of things that a government can and should do better than the private sector. The government being our tool for the stewardship of our shared resources and all that.

When considered in the context of government waste, the sub-urb is an interesting study. The Sub-urbs are only possible because of massive public subsidies. Roads, sewers, water lines, power, police services, transit, and fire protection are all necessary elements for sub-urban development, and they are all paid for by the community. So if one person asks “why do my taxes go to purchase public art?”, another could just as easily ask “why do my taxes subsidize McMansion building out in the country?” One of the irksome things about the sub-urb is despite the fact that it receives a disproportionate amount of community spending, it has almost no true community space. Virtually everything is privatized: gated communities, shopping areas, athletic facilities and the like. Even the most “democratic” space in the ‘burbs, the shopping mall, is a private concern (as the curfews and security officers will attest). True public space, such as the street, the archetype of communal realm, is essentially inaccessible to people (unless they are in cars). This condition is understood by all, however, it has always been that way, and it is part of the DNA of those places.

The thing that grinds my gears is the attempt to impose suburban values on urban places. I have written at length about the nefarious effects of the sub-urban building type in downtown so I won’t address that here. That is not, however, the only instance where the introduction of sub-urban practices can destroy the elements that define downtown. In the last decade or two, as downtowns have become popular once again, we have found that people returning often do so with sub-urban baggage.

The Tennessee River belongs to all of us. It is our community resource- it is both the place of the city’s birth and provides us with life (water) to this day. Downtown belongs to all of us. It is us- the place we originally came together for communal benefit and the place we come together for commerce and recreation to this day. Part of the DNA of downtown is the concept that shared resources are just that. These resources belong to everyone in the community, and access to those resources for all is a fundamental principle. Thankfully, dating back to the days of the Moccasin Bend Task Force, a number of dedicated and hardworking Chattanoogans have recognized the importance of public access to the river. Consequently, we have a number of world-class riverfront parks and a riverwalk that extends miles from downtown. Those successes, however, are not complete. Without calling out specific developments or vessels, there have been (successful) attempts to privatize the riverfront, and restrict public access- to all of our detriment.

Another form that sub-urban privatization takes is street closure. How often do we see large office employers pitching the “campus” concept? They see their brethren out in the suburbs with expansive, closed, “secure” places and want that for themselves. Unfortunately, private companies aren’t the only guilty parties in this regard (ahem…UTC, TVA). Downtown streets should not be abandoned for private purposes (for that matter, downtown streets should not be abandoned for public purposes*). The fine-grained network of streets that defines a downtown make pedestrianism possible, provide a variety of alternatives for drivers, make infrastructure delivery efficient, and normalize wayfinding. The kicker is that once those rights-of-way are abandoned they are essentially lost forever (even if that business moves or goes out of business in a decade). Our community, present and future, loses its shared inheritance of public space.

Reducing the size and government is an admirable aim. Let’s be mindful, however, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Did I mention how I loathe LSU (no offense intended to the LA students) and how I can’t wait for November 5th?

*I wish I had nickel for every charrette I’ve attended where a well-meaning citizen has suggested that we close a road to make a pedestrian mall. That is very rarely a good solution.

No comments:

Post a Comment