Overpassing the Value of Public Space

Public Space, Urban Design

Caltrans does not restrict the right of free speech with handheld banners, but attaching flags or banners is not allowed,” a Caltrans-Spokesman told the San Jose Mercury News. He added, “We are concerned that people waving handheld banners could cause driver distraction — putting their safety or that of the motoring public at risk.

Today, we have prioritized the ‘motoring public’ over all other aspects of public life.

Our failure to cultivate the value and quality of our public spaces and public life is found in this picture of protesters and political advocates on a freeway overpass. Our cities are made up of public buildings, streets, squares and private lots, blocks and buildings. But when people want to be heard, seen, and get their message out to as many people as possible, they now gather on freeway bridge overpasses… for its on the freeways where everyone else can be found today, and not on our public street corners and squares.

Public assembly, free speech, and protests are cornerstones of American society. Our history includes the creation of National Parks and grand public spaces, such as Central Park, Golden Gate, and Balboa Park. They were created by us to, among other things, excercise our inalienable right to free speech and assembly. And, we continue to express our values in public and innovative ways as seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests, vile Trump rallies, and New York’s High Line success. These events are reflective of how our civilization grows and transitions over time.

We collectively expect access to public space in order to communicate with the bureaucracy running the machinery of our nation, state and city. We also know we must endeavor to protect these rights, as well as the spaces where these rights are exercised; Neither of which is easy.

In San Diego, our historic downtown ‘Speakers Corner’ is now long forgotten as 5th & E Street was the scene of great civil unrest a century ago. And, today’s homelessness explosion in our city has disturbed our relationship with public spaces. And, now our public parks and plazas are security patrolled, well-programmed, and require permits to use.

We also expect them to be animated with attractions to hold our limited attention spans or they’re considered ‘boring.’ As Camillo Sitte wrote over a century ago that, “In former times the open spaces—streets and plazas—were designed to have an enclosed character for a definite effect. Today we normally begin by parceling out building sites, and whatever is left over is turned into streets and plazas.” And, admittedly so, these stand-alone left over space ‘parks’ are too often inadequate and in need of bells and whistles to attract the ‘motoring public’ from far flung suburbs.

When I see people expressing their views on freeway overpasses, I see our civilization under duress or at least in transition – from gathering in the square to holding signs on an overpass bridge. These are one-way statements and this type of conversation does not facilitate a dialog and understanding. Sadly, this illustrates how far we’ve receded from what urban design guru Leon Krier teaches, “The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language – they are the foundation of civility and civilization.”

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