Ingredients For Great Public Space (And A Lot Of Lessons Learned)

There was a time when we were really good at making successful public spaces. Superficially I have no argument with this but it seems to lead to really historicist thinking. While he can be a touch nostalgic about the past, James Howard Kunstler is pretty clear that we’ve lost our way as a culture when it comes to making public space. What makes this message easy to hear is that he has perfected what I call the ‘public space rant’; his vehicle for poignant dos and don’ts of city making. 

Think of him as the Lewis Black of urbanism. I really do appreciate his outrage on certain topics; the fact that so many places today are generic and completely un-memorable, for example. In this TED talk, shared with me by a close friend, he shows us images of desolate suburban intersections with overly wide roads marked only by traffic lights and asks if this is what we send our soldiers to defend. He shows buildings where virtually uninterrupted walls face on to unpopulated streets and says that this building reminds him of the back of a home stereo system, creating a street too ugly for even criminals to walk down. 

My personal critique of this critic, though, is that too often he relies on the past for positive examples of how we should create public space. There are a lot of great public spaces being made today, but they don’t seem to be of interest to Mr. Kunstler. Regardless, however, he creates a great list of both positive and negative precedents for creating urban space. One of his best assertions is that a good public space should be framed by buildings. I offer London city hall as a great contemporary public space that is framed by the historic city but is completely of today. For your comments.

London City Hall. Image from www.architectureawareness.com

A still from J.H. Kunstler’s TED talk.

Image of Mr. Kunstler, mid rant. Image from TED talks.