A few things struck me in New York City... One was the frequency with which I encountered parks, plazas, and community gardens. You didn't have to intentionally go to a park, you just kind of wound up in one on your way somewhere. There is Central Park, of course, an enormous presence throughout upper Manhattan. But there are also delightful public spaces crammed into every available spot. Benches and landscaping invite passerby to linger for a few extra minutes, and friends meet on street corners and near subway stations.
|Park benches and gardens line the Broadway median|
|A cyclist greets friends at Union Square|
|Moments of beauty in everyday life|
They are even reclaiming parts of the roadway, using planters, paint, and attractive fences to create places to walk and sit. (I'll describe how this affects bicycling in another post.)
The sidewalks themselves are enormous compared to most other cities. And with good reason; there are thousands - millions? - of people using them all day and night. I can't even guess how many people I came face-to-face with in the day I spent walking around. There are social norms in place so that you limit your actual interaction with others to a manageable level, such as not quite making eye contact. But you can interact if you want to, especially with people you encounter regularly. No matter what, you realize that you are in a diverse community but still have much in common with its members.
This opportunity for interaction is largely lacking in Atlanta, and people are noticing. At a recent meeting, one person after another said, in their own ways, "We don't have a public life in the Atlanta region. We don't have public places to meet, to express ourselves to the community, to interact with people who aren't exactly like us, to create a society. Everything is gated, commercialized, privatized. There is no commons."
One of the facts I heard about NYC, while I was there at my conference, was that 80% of their public space is their streets. This includes the sidewalks and bikeways. So the way that they use that space is crucial for creating a society, a public realm. I would assume the figures are similar for Atlanta's public space, but ours in almost entirely used for motor vehicles. You can't interact from a car. Honking and shouting are not a basis for community. Even rolling the window down to talk to a neighbor feels somewhat divisive, as you strain your voice over the sound of the motor and continually glance behind you for approaching traffic. And although local streets make up most of the transportation network, the majority of car travel takes place on major roads and highways where no meaningful interaction is possible at all.
How does this affect our perception of society? Will we support different public policies as a result? Does it change our perception of our role in the political system? Does it limit our ability to get unbiased information about the world around us? And if it is changing our sense of community for the worse, what can we do about it? Will we have the strength to change the existing policies, and create a new social and political future?
|The High Line: NYC created a new park on elevated train tracks several stories off the ground|