Friday, June 29, 2018

Who controls Baltimore's public spaces? (Part 2)

 The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.” ― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Like the German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1924 writing about Naples, Italy (see part 1), the American journalist Jane Jacobs had lovingly observed and described a city's public spaces. In 1961 New York and many other American cities were in peril: lively public spaces were threatened by urban renewal, the automobile and autocratically engineered solutions a la Robert Moses. Jacobs suggested as her antidote mixed use, small scale development, physical diversity and less dependency on the automobile. All would result in more eyes on the street. She had concluded all this under the ominous title of "life and death".  Her city New York has since been near death and seen several rebirths. Even though Jacobs was not a planning professional, her views are now widely adopted by urban designers. Yet, the issue of "life and death" is still around for many US cities and "recovery" is far from uniform. Especially legacy cities such as Baltimore continue to suffer from an often lifeless and also deeply segregated public realm.
Via-San-Gregorio-Armeno, Naples, Italy

The French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefevbre expands beyond Jacob's largely physical analysis of urban space with a wider theory. In 1974 he subjected "space" to the Marxist categories of production and interest, asking whose interest does (urban) space serve?

Integrating the different perspectives into a system he wrote "The Production of Space" in which space is described not as an "absolute" (a geometry) but as a social product with different meanings for those who conceived it (produced it) to those who perceive it (consume it) and those enduring it (living in it). His tri-part theory of space aims to integrate "physical, mental and social space". It allows urban designers and sociologists to go beyond design as a matter of geometric order to consider embedded non-physical aspects such as control and power (hegemony).
"It is not the work of a moment for a society to generate (produce) an appointed social space in which it can achieve a form by means of self-presentation and self-representation - a social space to which that society is not identical, and which indeed is its tomb as well as its cradle. This act of creation is, in fact a process." (Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Intro)
Armed with this more comprehensive understanding of space it is easier to decode what is going on in our urban spaces. It is obvious that Baltimore's transformation from an industrial city to one of service, science and entertainment would inform public space. In fact, the old maker-city didn't have much time for ceremony and display. The front stoop was all that was needed. Baltimore's spaces were mostly formed in an industrial age with strict ethnic enclaves. While residents would walk to their respective ethnic corner stores and churches, they would not mingle with strangers. The city of neighborhoods was also a city of strongly separated enclaves. The city was certainly not seen as a playground nor was it really a mixing bowl, no matter how ethnically diverse it was overall.
“The only thing different between the South and Baltimore was trolley cars. They weren’t segregated. Everything else was segregated.” (Thurgood Marshall)
In the urban renewal phase planners wanted to introduce downtown plazas: Amidst the rubble of demolition that preceded One Charles Center they conceived of three new spaces, strung together by (by now demolished) pedestrian bridges but tucked away from Baltimore's main street: Charles, Center and Hopkins Plaza. One could say that these designs ignored Jane Jacob's observation and the lessons from historic cities. As a result these new urban commons never performed well, exept for large events such as the City Fair. It was the converted waterfront of Harborplace that created the kind of leisure space which characterizes the post industrial city: A place of leisure and fantasy which promises a kind of mini vacation. Except, once discovered by tourists, Baltimoreans grew soon tired of HarborPlace and its growing lack of authenticity. But the vacation theme remains: The latest leisure space is the temporary "Sandlot" at Harborpoint. Erected on top of the Inner Harbor peninsula that was originally entirely devoted to industrial production, this latest creation of space is full of irony. Meanwhile, attempts of giving the Inner Harbor a makeover continue when Rash Field will be upgraded soon as a permanent leisure space, with an eye on serving everybody.
Rededicated street space in New York (Herald Square, photo: Philipsen))

Sensitized by the 2015 unrest and its own analysis, which confirmed that much more planning money had been spent on predominantly white neighborhoods than on black neighborhoods, the Baltimore Planning Department has recently presented a Green Network Plan with a focus on space creation in disinvested communities. While well intended, it is to fear that Jane Jacob's lessons will be once again forgotten.

In segregated Baltimore spaces were frequently not there for everybody, a fact that had found its particularly unpleasant manifestation in the openly racial segregation laws which, Lefevbre would argue, were a social product, reflecting the history of the US production system and its forced labor.

Space can become a tool in the Arsenal of Exclusion. (Dan D'Oca). Exclusion (or inclusion) can go many ways. It can be subtle through monuments which express power through meaning ("expression of space") or it can be explicit through prohibitions which ban begging "loitering" or assembly outright. Exclusion can also come in the form of bad design: it can exclude women, the elderly or the disabled by disregarding their special needs. Even the privileged and affluent can be excluded if they don't feel safe, welcome or able to navigate what they perceive as threats. In whatever form, such exclusions reduce the diversity which Jane Jacobs considered a key ingredient for a successful public space. Nothing makes people feel better than a lot of other non threatening people that are also out and about. It seems to be important for feeling comfortable and secure, though, that everybody can find others in the crowd that look like them. The frequently quoted "eyes on the street" make the public spaces work, the trick is to get them there. Watching the otherness of others in the public roam  is such a basic form of human enjoyment that it has recently enjoyed a renaissance in cities around the world. With the right balance in such a space, otherness is not a threat.
Downtown Detroit (Steven Lewis)

Since 1961, both the civil rights movement and a more community oriented design thinking among planners, have reverted many of the anti-urban trends which Jacobs had observed. Successful US cities, including those noted in part one of this article have once again lively streets and parks to such an extent, that the question of exclusion strikes again, this time as displacement through gentrification. For the most part, though, Baltimore and many other former industrial hubs such as St Louis, Cleveland or Louisville still suffer from empty and sometimes anarchic streets and continued high levels of segregation.

When Detroit design director Steven Lewis and I  talked about the "reinvented American legacy city" with a special focus on equity  at the AIA Conference in New York last week, Lewis, a long time "Angelino" showed a slide showing a lively scene of downtown Detroit, photographed during a special event. But Lewis had to admit, this wasn't normal:
"Sometimes in the morning when I look up Woodward Avenue there is not a soul in sight in two blocks" (Steven Lewis, Planning Department Detroit)
Jane Jacob's object of observation was New York City, by most accounts, a quite unruly place throughout its history as a city. Yet, today the lively chaos of Manhattan is an island of peace compared to the stillness of Baltimore's public spaces.

This contradiction of chaos and peace becomes clear if one considers that one can walk in Manhattan for miles without having to fear much of anything. Yes, there are way too many cars and there is too much horn blowing and the sidewalks are often so thick with a walking and gawking public that getting somewhere swiftly is difficult, but there isn't "anarchy". The sheer mass of people requires a common etiquette. On the subway escalator stand to the right, walk to the left. Drivers usually stop for pedestrians who, in turn, mostly don't walk right in front of moving cars while they have the red hand. There are plenty bicyclists generally contently riding in the many bike-lanes, buses ply their dedicated lanes as "Select" service. To keep an eye on it all the police department deploys an army of traffic patrol officers in small non threatening "smart cars" but they have full police powers and can issue citations when needed. There is also surprisingly little trash blowing around in spite the big ugly trash in plastic bags, black for landfill waste, clear for recycling, still put out for collection, a practice that Baltimore has largely eliminated.
Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)

In spite of the considerable gentrification, the public in the streets of Manhattan remains very diverse, a mixed crowd of different ages, races and appearances, a jumble of languages hangs in the air. The mix is a bit different in Hells Kitchen than on Wall Street, but whether on the sidewalk, the park or the subway, the bikelane or the bus, no population segment dominates entirely and one can walk feeling safe in any part and almost any time. Given the the national housing crisis, the high cost of city living and the rising inequality across America, New York, Seattle or Boston all see large number of individuals who have fallen through whatever safety system. Since their plight remains unresolved, it may sound cynical to point out that in a lively city the homeless, beggars and addicts don't dominate the space and thus don't make others feel unsafe. But it is an important ingredient of a successful public space that no one group should dominate.
In Baltimore, by contrast, being out and about in the streets is largely limited to downtown and even there only to a brief time during lunch hour that too often the unfortunate urban underclass outnumbers any other group.

The reinvented Baltimore of universities, health industry and tourism is still standing on much feebler legs than the economies of New York, Boston, Seattle or Zurich. In Baltimore, public space has largely been an after-thought, and even where it became the focus of attention, it was largely hampered by a lack of diverse uses which would fill all the surrounding buildings.
Pints in the Park: Event at Center Plaza

A case on point is Center Plaza, When the Downtown Partnership (DPoB) spearheaded a re-design it listened to New York's Project for Public Spaces (PPS) group which is helping around the country to make public spaces work.
DPoB traveled to New York's Bryant Park, a national posterchild of a reclaimed public space, which once had also fallen into a state of neglect and unsafe emptiness of the kind which still plagues so much of Baltimore. Center Plaza was then beautifully redesigned and rebuilt, but to this day it lacks, what PPS considered the key to success: Active uses around the plaza and a lot of programs taking place on it. In spite of thousands of new downtown residents populating converted downtown retail and offices spaces, surrounding ground floor space remains vacant, underused or used without benefit of the plaza. Outside of programmed events mostly homeless use the space.

The Center Plaza problem is being repeated in Baltimore's neighborhoods in the name of Project CORE and the Green Network Plan. Here demolition is slated to create urban squares such as Druid Square, once again without ensuring that enough people and active buildings face and frame the space to put eyes on the square. Druid Square will never look like Lafayette Square without the stately structures which make that West Baltimore square so beautiful. But even it struggles under the weight of vacancies and the absence of people to populate it. Baltimore public space will get a large boost once Ryan Dorsey's complete streets bill passes and becomes official policy. Its entire purpose is to elevate streets to a level where they serve people and not just cars. Even though, while public spaces help to solidify the public consensus which every city needs, the people to populate the streets are still needed.
Police protecting HarborPlace at the  free speech area
of the now demolished McKeldin Fountain in May 2015 (Photo: Kim Stark)

The solution to scarcely populated public spaces in Baltimore is not a strategy of reduction which bans or further discriminates against the less fortunate. Instead, what is needed is a strategy of addition: More people, more uses to make spaces inviting and safe for even more people to go out into streets, parks, and plazas.

Although neither Jacobs nor Lefebvre talk about it, I would suggest to add the theory of the tipping point. The obvious conundrum that empty spaces would benefit from more people, if there only were sufficiently many people to begin with, requires a dynamic view in which a system is fueled with energy until it tips into a self feeding positive feedback loop. To achieve such a tipping point, a lot of things have to be calibrated just right. One of them is the right balance between control and freedom. Another is a redirection of resources away from the big projects which create even bigger dead zones such as a Convention Center. Full focus on reviving depleted Baltimore neighborhoods would most likely create the critical mass needed to fill Baltimore's public spaces and make everyone feel safe.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also  see part 1 of this article

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