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The Public Realm and the Common Good

By James Howard Kunstler

Caption Americans historically have a low regard for the public realm, and this is a very unfortunate thing, because the public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm, as we have, then you degrade the common good. This is what lies behind a whole range of social problems, from crime to municipal bankruptcy. Our disregard for the public realm has especially impaired our ability to think about public life, or civic life, let alone civic art. We built a nation of scary places and became a nation of scary people.

In our more romantically vaporous moments, we like to hark back to the days of the “village green” and the “town square.” But these devices of civic art have been the exceptions, not the rules, in our historical townscape. The town common, for instance, was a feature of the Puritan village, which was itself modeled on a medieval English farming village. The term common referred to woodlands, pastures and fields outside die village as well as the civic space within – which more often than not was little more than a muddy central cow pen. Anyway, the pattern was largely extinguished by the time of the Revolution, when farms became the rule of settlement. The courthouse square was a nineteenth century innovation in the south and midwest, but then only in county seats, where the courthouse was. More usually, American towns reiterated the mechanistic national grid, unrelieved by the devices of civic art.

A few years ago, I was doing a story about the over-development crisis in Vermont for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The state had convened a Panel of prestigious citizens to figure out a remedy for their disappearing farms, belabored towns and burgeoning highway crudscape. The panel settled on the term traditional settlement pattern as a sort of panacea. By this they meant a compact village designed around some central village green. You could practically whiff the scented candles from the little gift shops. The truth was they had no intention of changing their idiotic zoning laws, or any of the other mechanisms encoded in their building practices that made it impossible to create places worth caring about, and hence they had no chance of solving the spiritual problems engendered by the creeping crudscape.

More than once I was directed to Stratton Mountain, the ski resort, to see “a really horrible case of bad development.” So I went to Stratton. And what I found, oddly enough, was the only case of a “traditional settlement pattern” executed in new construction anywhere in the state. They had, in essence, built a little village at the foot of the mountain. The construction was kind of cheesy, and the details were saccharin, but the basic elements of good urbanism were there! They had apartments (condos, really) over the shops. The buildings were arranged so as to define a central public space. And the whole thing was scaled to pedestrians. There was a large, multi-level “parking structure” below the village — an arrangement nearly identical to that of Perugia, Italy. They had apparently been able to build it under the pretense that they were building a sort of mall. But the final result was a good deal better than a mall. And all the well-intentioned Vermonters hated it! This proved to me that even educated Americans can not think clearly about these issues.

Last year, I sat in on a meeting of another group of well-intentioned citizens in my own town, Saratoga Springs, New York. The group calls itself the “Open Space Committee,” its members dedicated to improving the townscape of Saratoga. But it soon became evident that the very name of their organization had completed sabotaged their ability to think clearly about the issue. They’d gotten it into their heads that their proper mission was to create and preserve open space in town.

As it happens, our problem in Saratoga, as in most American towns, is quite the opposite. We have dozens of acres of flattened urban renewal land downtown in the form of parking lots, while the surrounding countryside is being blighted by veterinary clinics, convenience stores and raised ranch houses-in short, the functions of town life are being smeared all over the countryside, ruining both town and country.

Anyway, this Open Space Committee of about thirty which included quite a few architects, landscapists and other design professionals set themselves to the task that night of brainstorming about a particularly vexing parcel of land downtown. This was the eight-acre site of the old Grand Union Hotel, razed in 1954 and replaced by one of the more horrid little strip malls ever conceived, about 80 percent of which was the blacktop parking lot- The strip mall building itself was near the end of its so-called “design life” and begged development. The question before the committee was: What to put in its place?

It also happens that this site lies directly across the street (our main street, called Broadway) from Saratoga’s largest formal “open space,” Congress Park, ten acres of ponds, meadows and glades designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Well, after two hours of brainstorming, the Open Space Committee decided that the best use of the old Grand Union Hotel site would be…a park! Got that? A park, right across the street from the town’s main park.

The tragic part of this, of course, is that this sort of idiocy comes from my town’s best-intentioned citizens, its educated minority. If they can’t think clearly about these things, then who will?

Photo courtesy of Regional Plan Association. James Howard Kunstler is a noted American writer. His most recent book is The Geography of Nowhere.