Saturday, May 7, 2011

Public Spaces and the Good Life

Last Sunday I took a break from procrastinating on homework to go for a ride with some friends. Our plan was to go downtown, then ride along the river on the walk/bike path, but the river was swollen so the path was underwater. We decided to head to Rosa Park's Circle, which is the closest thing Grand Rapids has to a central square. The weather was perfect, so there were lots of people out biking and walking; actually, we almost couldn't find enough bike parking, which was a quite a change from normal. While I kept reminding myself of A View From the Cyclepath's warning to “Beware the cyclists of Spring,” and not take the increase in riding that comes with good weather as a sign of a permanent increase in mode share, the vibrancy of all these people being out and about in the city was amazing.

At Rosa Park's Circle, there were people just siting and enjoying the sun. one guy looked like he had fallen asleep while tanning: no shirt, no shoes, his head resting on his backpack. A few Rasta' looking people were playing reggae music out of a Marshal guitar amp. We locked up our bikes and pulled out a frisbee. The circle is right in front of the art museum, so there were nicely dressed people walking through who looked like they were going to an event in the museum. Families out for the day came through by foot and bike.

While we were playing frisbee, I couldn't help but think that this was the promise of public spaces. We had all come for different reasons, to do different things, but we were able to share this space and enrich it for each other by being there and being different. I don't usually listen to reggae, but it was the perfect mood setter for the day, and it without them it wouldn't have have as pleasant.

The broad theme of this blog is the good life, and my growth in what I understand that to consist of and how I can live it out. In light of that theme, my experience that day led me to think of the integral importance of public spaces to being able to live out a communal good life.

When I think of the places in which I feel most alive, it is almost invariably some form of public space. National parks, city parks, piazzas and pedestrian streets. The most overarching characteristic I can find is that there is usually a broad range of people doing a broad range of things. The exceptions to this are usually places that emphasize solitude and natural beauty.

The implications for me, as someone who is studying architecture and city planning, is that public spaces are the largest factor in the livability of a city. Obviously one can live a good life in a place with no public spaces, but from a communal standpoint, they are essential.

What are your thoughts? Have you had the same experiences with public spaces?

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