March 26, 2006

From Ireland: Reclaiming the Streets

Some interesting thoughts from across the pond regarding the importance of long-ignored public space, and what it means to a successful community.

"We may not yet have succumbed to the private nirvana of consumption that is Daslu — Sao Paolo’s luxury boutique, where, because the rich do not walk, you cannot enter off the street but must arrive by car (or helicopter) and pass through a security checkpoint — but Dundrum Town Centre betrays some of its less appealing characteristics: it is a self- referential walled city, cut off from the devastated heart of Dundrum village by a moat of traffic," Shane O'Toole writes of a Dublin development in yesterday's Times of London. "In contrast, city centre retail developments have generally sought to extend the surrounding network of urban connections to create new urban routes."

Sound familiar? How many of you have ever arrived by foot to the Natick Mall? Shoppers World? The Framingham megaplex theater?

"Cities have to be theatres for public life, not just machines for production. The city should be curated as a work of art or managed as a great theatre," O'Toole argues. "All successful cities across Europe and the US, from Barcelona, with its myriad small public spaces and support for street spectacle, to New York, where Central Park was turned around over the past generation from a city-owned antisocial space to a place of public 'happenings', managed and programmed by a private trust, learnt the same lesson.

"Public space can be reclaimed to regenerate the economic and social life of urban areas. But it must feel safe, comfortable and pedestrian-friendly."

That also holds true for any redevelopment plans that hope to succeed in downtown Framingham.

"Public is a bad word in Ireland right now. The public sector is denigrated as the private sector is lauded," he says. That's even more true in the current American political discourse. But we ignore public space at our peril.

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