Blogathon 2009 – Why support public space?

When I look down the list of non-profits that Blogathoners are raising money for, I notice a lot of awfully worthy causes, involving animals, children, groups providing support to people with a whole range of medical conditions and challenges, education, crisis support, the environment, war veterans… at times, I question the nobility of the cause I’ve chosen next to all these incredibly worthy groups doing excellent work. How does public space hold up as an important issue, next to helping someone out who’s experiencing something awful on a daily basis, or in need of immediate assistance, or who has nowhere else to turn?

Then I look outside wherever I happen to be, and remember that the things I enjoy about the life I’m fortunate to live are anything but an accident. It was fought for, by people who might not have always known what they were doing, but who could tell what was and wasn’t right for them and the world they wanted to live in. But it wasn’t just about the fight. I’d like to think they also came back to a bargaining table, time and time again, evening after evening, to negotiate something that worked not just for them, but for everyone else around them. They proposed alternatives, transcending their reactionary stance to become constructive contributors.

There’s been no shortage of speculation, debate and scholarship around the relationship between the practices of citizenship that enable democracy, and the forms and qualities of high quality public spaces. Up to this point, I’ve been poking and prodding around the qualities of online spaces that encourage forms of participation I’m interested in, like creative expression, collaboration, learning, and informed debate. As I’ve been starting to read about physical spaces, it’s been interesting to see that, just as online spaces can and are often co-opted for uses unintended by the designers, physical ones are too. The methods of curbing this, or making it least intrusive to others as possible, similarly exist, but issues of balancing the needs and diversity of the community members and the broader group come into play just as they do online.

Why public space advocacy?

Before I started getting to know the Vancouver Public Space Network, my assumption was that we pay the people who think about this really well, right? Architects, government staff, researchers and planners of all stripes — they’re all on this, full-time, and they’re doing their darnedest. Why should we need a non-profit to educate and advocate on this stuff? I didn’t know I was making these assumptions, but I unwittingly had them unraveled and replaced with something else.

When I moved back to Vancouver after living on my own in Toronto, it was a huge change in scenery — I moved from Queen Street West on the fringes of downtown Toronto (across the street from one of the city’s largest parks)…to Burnaby. Not the nice, walkable, neighbourhood-centric part of Burnaby (incidentally, where Richard lived for over 6 years), but the extremely car-oriented, “single family homes with garages as far as the eye can see” part of Burnaby. It didn’t have the distinction of being a “food desert” – we did have an organic supermarket within a reasonable biking distance and a 20-minute walk away. But it just so happened that I was living here at the same time as I was commuting to downtown Vancouver participating in the Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue, and grappling with the intricacies and impacts of land use planning for the first time. I saw what the teenagers did on weekends. I saw the annual summer barbeque at the townhouse complex, and a developed more of a feel of what these kinds of spaces were nurturing, that was different from any of the other places I had lived before, like East Vancouver, or Little Mountain, or even Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.

The Public Realm – Public Space Connection

My point is that the design of public spaces impacts us all in a number of very subtle ways. The converse of that has certainly been true for me: poorly designed public spaces that don’t nurture community, connection, and our collective ability to at least be exposed to, if not actively deal, with “annoying strangers” results in a paucity of the creative energy that I’ve found central to my growth and maturity as an individual.

So I see the creation and preservation of good public space and its contributions to community life, as being a huge part of the underlying social groundwork whereby we learn and know that we can make things better for each other. Where we learn to be generous. Where we learn how to pick up a cause and contribute it, however we can, be it in a grand, meaningful gesture or in a small way. Where we remember the joy of doing something nice for someone simply because we can — not because we’re supposed to, or it’s our job to, or because we owe them something, or because we want them to owe us something. I was raised in an environment where this thinking wasn’t instinctual, and chances are good the same is true of you.

These actions in communities often don’t directly benefit or contribute to a specific person’s quality of life. But they do affect the quality of all of our lives. So that’s why I’m raising money for the Vancouver Public Space Network, and why I encourage you to support them as well, however you can or prefer to.

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