Often, to evoke the vision of an urbanist future, we reflect on images of public spaces borne of a sociocultural tradition from another place or time.
But with such indiscriminate references to walkable and compact, mixed use experiences, are we asking too much to bring the presumed richness of an evolved, world city to every American urbanist’s back yard?
A former field, the location of gallows for minor offenses, a juncture of streets devoted to trades, a market by day and a haven of night life: do we do injustice to rich history by assuming we can recreate the physical form produced by this “back story”?
Six years ago, while on sabbatical from my law firm, I made a presentation that asked Cornell University students studying in Rome to reflect on the context of what they had learned.
The issue of context graced the handout, just as it graces the dilemma of imposing patterns from another history on an American urban pattern.
As noted, this dilemma may yield more questions than certainty in changing times, and a salient portion of the handout asked the students to consider the dilemma, described as follows.
Rome contains some of the world’s most successful “public spaces”. Assume you are an American planning director who receives a request from a city council member who has just returned from a trip to Rome. The council member wants to pressure local mall redevelopers to create a space reminiscent of Campo di Fiori at the center of a 1960’s era shopping mall which is subject to pending development approvals for a multi-million dollar renovation. What features can you insert in the development agreement draft to attempt such ambiance? Can successful public spaces be successfully legislated?
How would you respond to this question today?
A summary of the referenced handout appears below.