Monday, June 5, 2006
One of the most thorny dilemmas of land use policy is the city park. For many years, downtown parks and squares have been magnets for the homeless, drug addicts, and other antisocial types, thus making them to anathema to the average citizen. In a less tolerant past, winos might have been told to "scram" by the cop walking the beat; by 1970, however, few cops patrolled the streets and the striking down of vagrancy laws restricted law's ability to regulate the parks. The shunning of urban parks by the average citizen was exacerbated both by suburbanization (auto-bound commuters saw no reason even to consider visiting an urban park) and the American attitude of favoring private space (homes and offices) over public space.
In the past 20 years, however, revived attention to urban amenities has led many cities to pay renewed attention to their downtown parks. Yesterday, I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose Plaza was laid out by the Spanish soon after 1610, making it one of the nation's oldest urban squares. Compared with my last visit nearly ten years ago, the Plaza at lunchtime was flush with urban activity. One section seemed permanently reserved for groups of scruffy, hackysack-playing teens; meanwhile, a respectful distance away, Indian families ate lunch on the grass, while many of the ornate metal benches were filled with weary tourists (like me) resting their feet and adjusting their cameras.
What has helped the Plaza? One small but significant change that I noticed is that lunchtime carts, previously restricted to side streets, were now conveniently placed at each corner of the Plaza, offering green chile corn tamales, turkey drumsticks, and hot dogs. By allowing this type of commerce, Santa Fe lures lawyers in gray suits and others who might see no reason to visit and sit down. Once a critical mass of non-threatening people are observed, the urban park seems friendly to all.