the view from stockton house

Search this site:

The Commonspace

Nov 2004 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

On the Public Realm: Sidewalks, Shade, and Sauntering
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

"Sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users,
are active participants in the drama of
civilization versus barbarism in cities.
To keep the city safe is a fundamental task
of a city's streets and its sidewalks."

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

On July 23, 2004, Judge Douglas Woodlock of the Massachusetts District Court deemed it necessary to contain protesters of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in a cage described as a "Free Speech Zone." The judge himself had visited the cage, located nearly two blocks away from the convention center, and stated in his opinion that despite the fact that he lamented the loathsome sniper-guarded container of jersey barriers, chain link fencing, netting, and razor wire as an "affront" to the freedom of speech, he declared such draconian measures necessary in a post-September 11, 2001 world. Unfortunately, this magician's act of waving the bureaucratic wand, hastening the demise of public space, is not only local to Boston: it is everywhere. Imagine if the Convention had been held in the City of Saint Louis at the America's Center. Would the closest acceptable "free speech zone" have been found on the sidewalks of Washington Avenue, or blocks away in the easier to target field that once was home to Pruitt-Igoe? This analogy, although amusingly ironic and perhaps extreme, points to an issue that Judge Woodlock and all other advocates of a police state since the riots at the 1968 Chicago DNC (and before), including architects and planners, wish to ignore: the degradation, depletion, and elimination of public space. However, we as architects, planners, and citizens must address this issue if we wish not to forsake our inalienable rights. We must first analyze our perceptions of the public realm and the role it plays in our society; we must then understand the mental and physical aspects as well as the social and cultural effects associated with its decline and fall; and finally, we must ask ourselves what we must do in order to insure that our public realm, the very fabric of order in our society, never perishes, leaving us with no public rights at all.

Public rights in public space are not merely limited to political protest. In fact, discussion of political ideologies is perhaps one of the most minor activities held in public space. Dissent, protest, and picketing may occur in areas large enough to allow for numerous participants, however, the public realm extends much further than that. The majority of public space consists of the streets and sidewalks of our neighborhoods. It is there that we see friends while strolling, buy newspapers from vending boxes or newsstands, and it is also where we give those in need our pocket change and a moment of our time. Some fear it; others revel in it. We walk through it, ride our bicycles through it, and drive through it. Some of us sleep in it. It is the realm of block parties and street festivals. It is also the realm of muggings and rape. But why do people feel comfortable walking along Euclid Avenue in the Central West End and not along Cook Avenue in the Vandeventer Neighborhood? Why does one today find only a fraction of pedestrians ambling through Grand Center in comparison to the throngs once commonly found in the district as recently as the late 1970s? The answer is perception. Some will say that they feel comfortable in a realm where other people are walking safely; rare are those who admit that the feeling is subjectively based upon how like them those "others" are. Some will say that they rely upon a police presence to feel safe, but what if you are a protestor and an officer aims a gun at you? Others will add that buildings in disrepair or in states of abandonment instill fear in them. But what if you live there and cannot afford to make the most basic repairs because a bank refuses you a loan? When we turn the tables, our answers may very well change, however, much in our public realm amplifies the basest of all human characteristics, and out of this amplification arise the perceptions by which we ascribe blanket descriptions to our struggling neighborhoods: unsafe; crime ridden; dangerous.

To be in public in ancient Athens meant to be a citizen,
and likely enough to be engaged in civic duties.
In modern life, by contrast, the areas of political
action have become so remote that to be in
public for a person has lost all connotation of being a
responsible citizen with duties to his community.

John Carroll, Australian Sociologist

When Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she in essence was rebelling against the age-old notion that the primary responsibility of a city was defense. As portions of our civilization evolved from hunter gatherer nomadic tribes to agriculturally driven permanent city-states, certain fears from that earlier time persisted, primarily the fear of outsiders and therefore of attack. City-states built walls, but commerce demanded gates in these walls, and the fear perpetuated itself. Even the earliest of texts supports this notion; the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah in the ancient Hebrew scriptures points out that this fear eventually led to those great cities' demise (the cities essentially destroyed themselves through a lack of egalitarian inclusiveness). Building taller walls, or in our age, a missile defense system, can never prevent rot and collapse from within. Despite the fact that we are today paralyzed economically and socially out of a nonsensical fear founded in our ignorance and denial of the fact that life is full of unexpected events that can never fully be predicted, Jacobs' assertion of the fact that the primary function of cities is to allow for the interaction of peoples for the purposes of fiscal and intellectual commerce, still remains true. We need each other, and until we realize this truism, we are as doomed as the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In a nearly completely globalized society in which trade and commerce are imperative for the survival of the civilization, the very best of human attributes, tolerance and understanding, are essential for the adequate functioning of the system. It is essential for our cities to provide public places in which informal fiscal and intellectual commerce may occur, much as the Athenian agora once did. These places may at times bring out the worst attributes of humanity, greed and avarice, but with the full participation of the masses, people will police themselves, as they understand that their well-being hinges upon the collective virtue of all participants. If public spaces are crafted to bring out those virtues, they do much to ground us in reality, to comfort our neuroses and paranoia, and to stimulate that that is best in every one of us. If these spaces are not nurtured, if instead they are neglected, the basest of human characteristics show themselves, exacerbating fear, and amplifying social pathologies. Thus, our public realms follow the same rules as architecture: interaction, inspiration, and the improvement of health. In this case, it is inspiration. Our public spaces should be designed to inspire us to virtuous participation in the society, and to perpetuate complex rituals of civility instead of the crime of distrust based in fear.

Certainly, there are mental and physical aspects of the degradation of the public realm that deserve consideration. With the complete pervasiveness of private modes of transport, i.e. automobiles, and with the automobile based phenomenon of the passive consumption of materials and products, specific pathologies have begun to plague the society. Collective ignorance has become so pervasive that our government has had to resort to foolishly draconian measures in order to dole out the tiniest of education budgets to those who "deserve" it, i.e. those who performed well on subjective examinations. Obesity has finally been declared an epidemic in this society. And, according to a certain drug manufacturer, 16 million Americans suffer from "social anxiety disorder." Those profiting from these morbid pathologies offer panaceas such as the Atkins Diet or Zoloft, but these are Band-Aid solutions to problems that cut much deeper. They must be seen as interconnected in order to fully address them. When the public realm is healthy, so are the people who use it; in turn, this makes the city and the society healthier as they benefit from what is in essence a feedback loop. For example, tree-lined sidewalks along city streets would encourage more pedestrian activity, which in turn would allow for better physical fitness. With more people walking to and from points in the city, naturally, shops and other businesses will locate themselves along those paths in order to capitalize upon the traffic. These independent businesses may do so well as to compete with other businesses more dependent upon convenient automobile use, and may develop a large enough market share such that the dependent businesses are no longer profitable. This narrative could have any potential end: reduced use of the automobile, densification of our cities, reduction of pollution, but it would also solve a lot of the seemingly unconnected problems like obesity and "social anxiety disorder" as people would find interaction with others not only attractive, but necessary for the improvement of their health.

It is fairly logical how, when taken in the positive direction, a simple act of improving the quality of the public realm may spiral through the feedback loop to benefit the society and all who participate in it. But what happens when we spiral the loop in reverse? What kind of social and cultural effects would we see? What we would see is what we see now: a homogenized series of pseudo-spaces crafted, whether purposefully or accidentally, to intimidate, control, and prey upon people while exciting their basest tendencies. It is the world of privatization, the world of Zoloft-popping automatons, the world where people buy plastic sheeting to protect themselves from potential nuclear fallout. It is the world where people buy just about anything to feel a little more secure in a world full of uncertainty. It is a world where community and its comforting words and embraces are seen as archaic in the face of the commoditized substitute "available for a limited time only." It is a world where we are all prisoners, or at least passive spectators. Note the popularity of television reality shows, video games, online dating services. It is not that these media are necessarily detrimental, for they can be quite entertaining, but it is rather that the popular belief, that television and other media are more efficient and effective modes of fiscal and intellectual commerce than everyday interaction, has created a situation of manifest destiny in which we as a society now appear trapped. We seem to know no other way, hence the rise of "social anxiety disorder" and the lot. In the prosperity of this cyber reality, our real reality suffers. Public green spaces, which once would have teemed with diverse activity and interaction, now are to be seen from the windows of a car, rather than walked through. Take, for example, the Tilted Plane in Grand Center, or better yet, the new "park" behind the Pulitzer Foundation at Spring and Olive, also in Grand Center. Both spaces are considered by the powers that be as adequate "public green spaces." However, both lack benches. The "park" at least features a few trees, yet it foregoes groundcover in favor of gravel, which covers every square foot of the "park" floor. Any number of criminal acts could easily be performed successfully in either of these parks, because no one would ever see them occur. As no one would ever wish to actually spend time in either of these spaces (unless one enjoys sitting on rubble retaining walls wrapped in chain link fencing), our most important moral imperatives of civility rituals and collective virtue would never even have a chance of being successfully monitored.

"...The best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. ...The day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only... To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come."

Henry David Thoreau, "Walking"

Interaction provides for inspiration and the improvement of health. It is the foundation of all our institutions, and if we allow it no realm in which it may occur, our society and culture as we know them will continue to dissolve, very slowly and very painfully, before our eyes. But we can all do our part to save them. Whether we are the participants in the drama of everyday public life, or the lawmakers who define the parameters of the stage on which it is set, or property owners, or architects and planners, we all have a role and a responsibility to first discover what we can do to preserve the public realm, then do it, and finally, spread the knowledge to others so they to may act and in turn, inform others.

On a recent afternoon, we walked from our studio here at the Stockton House to various points throughout the Grand Center Cultural Arts District to explore the progress of development improvements currently underway nearby, as well as to break up our daily routine. We do this periodically not only to stay on top of things in the neighborhood, but also for the simple health benefits derived from walking. These walks have made both of us increasingly aware of a distressing reality that not only characterizes most of the district, but also the better part of the City of St. Louis as a whole, namely this: in much of this city, the pleasure of walking and the importance of a viable and pleasant public realm is becoming increasingly difficult to either find or attain. To walk through Grand Center on a typical mild-weather day is difficult at best. Nowhere can comfortable benches be found on which to sit, daydream, or carry on a pleasant conversation while watching the world go by, and very few shade trees exist to protect the pedestrian from the intense sun. Sidewalk life has essentially been reduced to simply going from one's automobile to a particular building, or vice versa. The shared outdoor public spaces of Saint Louis' past, the shady sidewalks, comfortable public benches, and small inspiring pocket parks where one could go to quietly reflect or to simply "chill," have nearly entirely disappeared. When one makes a point to walk for an extended period through an area, or to stand around in one place, or sit within a particular area to experience a view, etc. it is not uncommon to find a police officer in his/ her patrol car pulling up to your location to interrogate you as regards your intentions and reasons for being there. The "street scene" has all but ceased to exist as an integral part of one's everyday life in Saint Louis.

There are exceptions to this and every rule, and some areas nearby still have quite an active and healthy street scene. The Central West End and the Delmar Loop in University City are two examples of realms where considerable street activity persists. But nearly all of this is related to the businesses that exist there. To find a public bench where one can just "hang" and not feel pressured to purchase something is almost impossible. Certainly there are reasons that discourage people from walking or from participating in public life at all; primarily, a misguided conception about according or denying specific rights to people based upon their social or economic ranking within the society. Some people feel they are entitled to more rights than others, simply because they own more property, or drive a bigger SUV, or are wealthy enough to have become ignorant of the limitations of their rights. For example, people without "wheels" are often deemed "inferior" and the homeless are often viewed as not even being a part of the society. Other groups are marginalized, such as bicyclists and everyday pedestrians, who are often neglected as almost nonexistent in a world formed and dominated by the use of automobiles. Countless times, we have heard, while attempting to cross Grand Avenue at Samuel Shepard Drive, as cars speed from South to North and vice versa, not minding the clearly marked crosswalk, "Move it," or most astonishing, "that ain't a crosswalk." This is the mentality of "I'm bigger than you. Move; or I will kill you." And what bicyclist has not heard the, by now, well worn admonitions "get out of the street," or "ride on the sidewalk like you should." As noted before, a feeling of entitlement to certain "rights" has replaced an obligation to social responsibility and moral duty.

"A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society."

Thomas Jefferson

Certainly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to mandate collective virtue, but the solution could be as simple as walking around your neighborhood more frequently. You may inspire others to do the same, exciting the feedback loop enough that eventually, a critical mass is reached at which enough pedestrians reclaim the public realm such that the virtue of respecting crosswalks permeates enough of the culture that to do otherwise would seem base. With every opportunity, it seems the best way to deal with such issues is to assert your public rights through direct action, however, one must always do so respectful of the rights of others, for once one asserts one's rights and interferes with those of another, all participants of an episode or event reduce themselves to what is base. Law enforcement will not always be there to protect the rights of the people due to a lack of resources or funding, thus the people must do what they can to protect their own rights. However, this self-governance should not exempt the police from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Property owners, too, hold a great responsibility within the society as regards the preservation of the public realm. As most of the public realm (in the form of streets and sidewalks) fronts private property, it is the duty of the private property owner to ensure that the portions of the public realm adjoining their property are safe and comfortable for people to traverse. Nearly every building today is cooled via mechanical air conditioning systems, and with this "innovation" there seems to have arisen a collective amnesia as regards our duty to that which is outside the building envelope. Instead of concerning ourselves with preserving, maintaining, and developing healthy outdoor spaces, we ask ourselves "why spend our money out there when we can spend it entirely on ourselves within the confines of our private spaces? To hell with the neighborhood, the community, and what is best for the common good." There was a time in our not-too-distant past when planting trees around our homes, along our communities' sidewalks, and within our parks was considered an absolute must. Trees were essential in keeping our outdoor public and private spaces, as well as our homes, schools, etc. cool and comfortable. What was once a common obligation, a basic commitment towards the common good, is today often recognized as a luxury or a wasteful and unnecessary expense. As such, our outdoor public street scene grows less and less user-friendly and more and more devoid of beauty, human interaction, and engagement. How do we overcome this cultural devolvement of respect for the common good? We must first realize that a sustained and growing reliance upon energy-consuming technology, as well as non-renewable sources of that energy, is ultimately going to lead us down the road to both economic and environmental ruin. We must begin to see that restoring our outdoor private and shared environments makes good common sense. What can we do to encourage the development and redevelopment of these outdoor spaces? Plant trees, and lots of them, around one's home, business, church, etc.; there is no such thing as too many trees. Plant sidewalk trees in your neighborhood. Encourage your city, town or neighborhood association to develop a tree-planting program for your area and/or community. Include parks, medians, public right-of-ways, etc. Where these programs already exist, utilize them to the fullest. Remember, the more trees we plant within our neighborhoods and communities the more cooling shade we will be provided, the cleaner our air will be, and the lovelier our living/ working environments will thus become by way of the visual enhancement. There are those who will protest in no uncertain terms that improving the public realm with generous shade trees, benches, and cozy lush pocket parks will only attract vagrants and undesirables. Yes, to a degree, anything lovely and inspiring will attract people of nearly every persuasion. But if we are going to make our communities more livable and enjoyable, we need to realize everyone must benefit from the civilizing powers of Nature, and if an enhanced manmade environment makes life more pleasant, ennobling, and meaningful for those less fortunate, so be it.

It is imperative that architects and planners recognize their responsibility to the public realm as well. The role of the architect should naturally entail a certain element of advocacy on behalf of the public realm. Unfortunately, this responsibility is repeatedly shirked when architects have the opportunity to persuade their clients to make value added contributions to the world around them in the fear that the client might find the proposal too controversial or risky. We as architects must insist upon buildings which open to their surrounds and sites which are considerate of public utility. From a planning standpoint, we rarely encourage multi-use strategies that allow people the option not to drive. Land use planning for the better part of the past half century has almost entirely encouraged developments which separate uses to the extent that individuals must drive from their home to work, to the store, etc. While all of one's everyday needs surely cannot be fulfilled within a walking distance, a great portion of them could be fulfilled were we more comprehensive and holistic in our thinking as regards planning. Ultimately when all things are considered, it is the "human scale" and how well we interpret it, which matters most. Our ability to create a living environment, whether urban, rural, or suburban, that is enriching, inspiring, and ennobling, should be seen as the ultimate of all human endeavors; a responsibility not to be shirked or taken lightly. The single most viable and economical way of making an area attractive and desirable, as a place to both live and/or work in is how well the public spaces are developed and how user-friendly they are: an area dense in fine shade is far more pleasant an experience to walk through with your spouse/ partner, your children, your dog, etc. when compared to a treeless landscape prostrate to the harsh summer sun. We, by virtue of our education and experience, have been granted the right to shape the environment that fronts the public realm, and often to craft the public realm itself. It is our duty to provide our clients, their loved ones and friends, all users of a building, and the public at large with frameworks in which they may live life to its fullest, and in which society may mandate public virtue and take responsibility for its interconnected pathologies.

In his essay "Walking," Henry David Thoreau points out that the imperative "to saunter" is derived from the French words "sainte" and "terre," giving it a connotation of "walking to the Holy Land." His notion that the landscape was free and open to anyone who wished to travel it may seem novel to some, however it was born out of the principals upon which this nation and its cities (the centers of its wealth) grew. To those who founded our society, and to those who fought to preserve it while risking their lives and sacred honor, free association was paramount. They saw it, devoid of homogenization and commoditization, as the blessing of true liberty and the path to the greatest ideal, a heaven on earth, if you will. On this road, all people are created equal, yet for this to remain so, it is our collective duty to preserve the rights of those who wish to travel it by maintaining a healthy public realm in which fiscal and intellectual commerce may prosper, without coercion or limitation based in faulty perceptions. If we continue to deviate from this route by destroying that which inspires and nurtures public virtue, i.e. the public realm, our society will most certainly take a turn down a more dangerous route, the road to eternal perdition; Godspeed, to us all.

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living
Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable
A More Appropriate Plan for Grand Center
Architecture & Landscape: The Inseparable Pair
The Craftsperson of Today
Indigenous Landscapes
Order in Chaos

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, email us at, or visit our home on the web at

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2004 The Commonspace