August 20, 2014

The Power of Public Spaces

by: Taz Loomans

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Recently I’ve been awed by the power of public spaces. Summer in Portland draws everyone out into the public realm. So far this summer I’ve been to two festivals at Pioneer Square, a street festival, a movie at the park, Shakespeare at the park, several picnics and have enjoyed time by myself at different parks. And this is only a fraction of what’s available to do in Portland in the summer in public spaces.

Here are 5 things I love about public spaces:

1. Public spaces are transcendent. They bring people together that normally would not sit next to each other or spend time with one another. Great public spaces attract people of completely different walks of life.


2. Public spaces give people a forum for self expression. In Portland, people will write on the sidewalk or paint a message on it to express something. Some people also just set up and play music on the sidewalk or preach or make art.


3. Public spaces are accessible. They are amenities that are available to everyone, regardless of age, income, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, class, physical ability or any other thing you can think of. If you are a living being, you are welcome to a public space.


4. Public spaces are where great social change takes place. They are where protests and public organization take place, whether they are street marches or public square protests. Public spaces are where social capital is built.


5. Public spaces build community. Free programming that happens in public spaces, like movie screenings, festivals, shows, fairs, performances, and sports activate the city and bring people together in a way that builds community.


Even in an age of social media and online forums, public spaces are critical spaces for community building, empowerment, social change making and allowing people to be themselves in front of other people. And in world where place is property, public spaces are a precious part of our cities where place is not profitized, life is not choreographed by developers, and people aren’t manipulated into making purchases or somehow spending money. Public spaces are usually owned by a municipality, are public in perpetuity and aren’t simply developed into private property when the economy becomes promising, although this is not always the case and cities often sell public land to private developers.


Public spaces are the heartbeat of a city. Without a vibrant network of public spaces, a city becomes too privatized, too sterile, too predictable, too stilted and lifeless. It’s essential to foster, create, preserve and maintain our public spaces and keep them truly public, without over policing them or over regulating them.

Photo Credit: All photos by the author.

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