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Reimagining the Commons

Tue, 08/08/2023 - 14:00
Setha Low

“Why Public Space Matters”
Setha Low
Oxford University Press, $32.99

In her inspiring new book, "Why Public Space Matters," Setha Low underscores the power we have as individuals and as community members to define public spaces in ways that both make our individual lives better and make the world a better place. 

If you see problems in your neighborhood or you feel a sense of unease about the way public spaces are managed and wish you could do something about it, this book is for you. If you want to better understand the diverse ways your local and global neighbors experience the world, this book is also for you. And, if this is the first time you are thinking about public spaces, this book is for you, too.

"Why Public Space Matters" serves a number of purposes and appeals to a range of audiences because public spaces are so varied in form and function: the beaches where we swim and walk our dogs; the sidewalks we travel when we shop or walk to work or, in some cases, such as street vendors and trash pickers, where we engage in our work; the community gardens where we grow food; the benches where we rest, catch up with friends and neighbors, and, in some instances, seek a good night's sleep; the parks where we exercise, organize, play, protest, and experience freedom or, sometimes, face interrogation. 

Ms. Low's work demonstrates the friction that can occur in such spaces and the importance of collaborative efforts to ensure that public spaces are designed to meet community needs.

Ms. Low is a distinguished professor in the departments of psychology, earth and environmental sciences, anthropology, and women's and gender studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she directs the Public Spaces Research Group. She has published numerous articles and several previous books, secured and directed grant projects from organizations such as the National Parks Service, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the National Science Foundation, and earned many awards, including a Fulbright Senior Fellowship and a Guggenheim. 

While her work has all of the hallmarks of rigorous academic research, her disciplined focus, concrete examples, and vivid language make this research accessible and engaging. 

By integrating research from around the world, including her own case studies, with her personal experiences and a variety of theoretical perspectives from a range of academic disciplines, she provides motivation and methods for readers to learn more about and to improve their communities. By embodying the principles of public discourse in a work about public spaces, she ensures that her form matches her message. Undergirding her argument about the importance of access in physical public spaces like parks is an argument about access in intellectual and cultural public spaces like books.

Ms. Low begins with the aim of the book, which is "to realign urban priorities and demonstrate the importance of public space for socially just cities." While her focus is explicitly urban, her work has significant implications for towns and villages, such as those on the East End of Long Island, where we wrestle with conflicts about beach access, public art, parking, rights of way, wildlife management, and insect control in ways that have implications for our sense of community, public health, and quality of life. 

Her research asks us to approach these issues by considering our neighbors (human and nonhuman), by learning more about them, and by engaging in long-term planning that includes the needs of all community members, so we define quality of life with our neighbors' needs and well-being in mind. Such inclusive design means acknowledging the value of human and ecological diversity and managing spaces so that the people, animals, plants, and other inhabitants are able to flourish. 

While Ms. Low acknowledges that some of the problems that riddle public places require solutions rooted in other places, such as the development of affordable housing, she demonstrates that investing in public spaces — first by committing to the research necessary to understand community needs and then by allocating resources to meet these needs — offers significant improvements in quality of life. 

The body of the book consists of case studies from decades of research set in Jones Beach, Poughkeepsie, Lake Welch in Rockland County, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Battery Park City, and abroad in Buenos Aires, Paris, and San Jose, Costa Rica. Professor Low creates a context for this by providing examples of research about public space by other researchers in places such as Copenhagen and the Philippines. 

The cumulative result is the revelation that what appears natural in regard to the design and use of public space is often constructed, which creates openings for us to reimagine and redesign public spaces in our communities in new ways. 

In addition, this research reveals that what sometimes shows up as differences, such as competing ideas about fences in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, are often rooted in common concerns, such as a desire for safety, which can contribute to mutually satisfying solutions when possible, and more empathy when impossible.

In the appendix, Ms. Low offers a coda about the utility of public spaces and a warning about their absence: "Public space provides settings and opportunities to see and encounter diverse kinds of people in unmediated situations where new connections, ideas, activities, and practices can emerge. These interactions are the basis of transformations that occur through cooperation, conflict, and negotiation such that without this platform for unplanned contact and social relations, understanding and social cohesion deteriorate." 

This way of framing public space challenges market-based assumptions that value privatization over the commons. Ms. Low's work reminds us that we do not have to leave decisions about public spaces to the market, but rather we can — and we should — take responsibility for community life by paying more attention, by looking at issues from multiple perspectives, and by finding solutions that serve the needs of our communities.

Stephanie Wade teaches writing at Stony Brook University and splits her time between East Hampton and Belfast, Me. 

Setha Low lives part time in East Hampton. She will be at a table with her book at Authors Night in Herrick Park on Saturday starting at 5 p.m.

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