Friday, July 6, 2007
[Hometown Week, continued …]
It is accepted wisdom that Americans place a premium on private spaces, at the expense of public space. Europeans are known to scorn Americans' lack of spaces, such as the Italian piazza, or public square, in which residents stroll at lunch or in the evening, and see and be seen, in the heart of the city or town. Such spaces don't exist much in America, both because of our 20th-century subservience to the automobile, and the lack of both social and governmental respect for such public spaces. To paraphrase humorist P.J. O'Rourke, anything that is "public" becomes dirty and unpleasant.
So is it quite a surprise, therefore, that my old hometown, Silver Spring, Maryland, has come up with, almost accidentally, a fairly successful public "piazza." Just adjacent to the highly regulated outdoor downtown mall (see my July 5 entry) is a plot, about half the size of a city block, that has been covered by artificial grass for a couple of years. (See CKIvey's photo at left.) One can toss a ball, one can sit down with a sandwich from a nearby shop, or one can simply walk along the grass and look at the neon lights of the stores nearby. The plan was to keep the spot vacant simply while the government decided what to do with it. (Current plans include a skating rink.) This highly unregulated spot -- across the street from a popular movie theatre complex -- surely caused some concern among local authorities. This might especially be true because Silver Spring is ethnically very diverse (some Americans suggest that European public realms are more successful because of the homogeneity of European culture). With large numbers of Silver Spring's whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians mixing together on weekend nights -- heavily skewed toward teenagers and young people -- surely this space would mean trouble, yes?
But it appears to be working. Especially in evenings, when the green space is packed with people, there appears to be little trouble, and a lot of life. In fact, the artificial grass -- which surely would cause noses to turn up among educated planners -- appears to be a fine choice. It is both more pleasant to look at than concrete, is safer to fall down on as a playing kid, withstands rain and drought, is a fairly easy to clean up. The little green space is so successful that many residents are lamenting the plan to eventually get rid of it. A big blank space in the middle of a city -- Who would have thought that it would be such a successful amenity? Well, centuries of European city designers, that's who ….