It may be time to stop worshipping at the altar of public space.
For the past few decades the religion of public space has often centered on creating big marquee projects like New York’s High Line, Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail, and our Delaware Waterfront. The arguments for these spaces are easy to make: They are wonderful amenities that attract visitors and residents and can aid in a city’s revitalization. Big projects have certainly added to Philadelphia’s cool factor and have proven to be strong economic drivers … although not necessarily for the benefit of those who get displaced or ignored.
An emerging school of thought suggests that this view is limited: The value of public spaces goes far beyond their value as amenities, and can be drivers of the public good — including better civic and political engagement, and improved social and economic equity. Equally as important, our parks and other public spaces require much more to make sure they continue to be effective — like strong governance and regular maintenance, and a focus on smaller neighborhood and community assets.
The city’s Rebuild project — $500 million of investment, including $100 million from the William Penn Foundation, that will repair playgrounds, rec centers, libraries, and parks throughout the city — is perhaps the premier example of this new way of thinking. A report issued last month by PennPraxis, the clinical arm of Penn’s School of Design, argues that Rebuild-like efforts around the country can actually build civic infrastructure, and that developed and governed correctly, assets like parks and rec centers might have the potential to heal and build neighborhoods, and improve civic life.
That’s why the delays that the project encountered, primarily from City Council pushback, were of such concern. By June, the city managed to move ahead and begin identifying where the first Rebuild projects will begin.
It’s important that City Council not look at Rebuild as a cash-stuffed piñata that each member will have a turn at. That’s because a piñata gets broken into a bunch of small pieces. The potential for Rebuild — to reknit communities, give people a sense of agency, and make inroads into a more equitable city — can’t happen if projects become unconnected spaces for Council members to micromanage. Especially in a city like ours, the whole must be much more than the sum of the parts.
If Philadelphia is the cradle of liberty, it is also the cradle of public space, dating back to the 17th century, when William Penn created five public squares. We are ahead of many cities in understanding the important role public space can play in the quality of our civic life. It’s also notable that some of the loudest debates and recent controversies in this city have centered on how public space is used and who gets to use it: the feeding of homeless on the Parkway, the encampments of opioid users in Kensington and other neighborhoods, the fate of the Rizzo statue, the incident when Starbucks called the police on two black patrons, and most recently, the removal of ICE protesters from their Eighth Street encampment. These loud debates over what we expect and/or tolerate from our public spaces may be healthy, but also signal real problems that must be solved.
Smart approaches to investing in public spaces can help solve those problems. The through-line is safety: Neighborhoods and people can’t thrive in danger. The years we’ve allowed the crumbling of rec centers, schools, and libraries coincide with the years that poverty and strife — and lack of civility — has increased in Philadelphia and throughout the country. A new emphasis on rebuilding – fixing, repairing, and restoring — may go a long way in fixing what ails us as a city, and as a society.