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For Thriving Public Spaces, Just Add Seating

Could reviving useless public spaces be a simple as adding seating? Jonathan Rowe thought so, and tried it out in his own hometown.

This article is excerpted from Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Work by Jonathan Rowe, published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

William H. Whyte was a journalist who spent years ob­­serving how people act and interact in public spaces. He walked the streets, sat with notebook in plazas and parks, set up cameras in unobtrusive places, and spent end­less hours studying the results.

He noticed that when people stop to chat on sidewalks they don’t move to an edge or entryway, they stay right in the middle. Others have to walk around them. In plazas, they tend to con­gregate where other people are. Even lovers don’t seek the soli­tude of secluded corners, as one might expect. They coo right out in the open, for all to see.

“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people,” Whyte wrote. “What attracts people most is other people.

And yet, remarkably, many cities have succeeded in de­sign­ing “under-crowded” public spaces, sometimes very grand and beautiful ones. The reason, Whyte found, is that people don’t care about the architectural design of a public space. What they do care about is one simple thing: places to sit. They especially like steps and ledges, perhaps be­cause they don’t appear intended for sitting. And they like chairs they can move around, so they can create their own groups or sit apart and read.

Which brings me to a vacant—that is, undeveloped—lot on Main Street in my town, right next to a gift shop and a bakery. The bakery has a couple of benches outside, and in the mornings the place is buzzing. More than one person has noted that the adjacent vacant lot would make a natural extension of it. There could be more benches, some tables for eating or for chess, maybe a play area for little kids. It could be the heart of town.

A friend and I decided to see if we could make a commons happen there just by seeding it a bit. We both had old gar­den benches lying around, so we fixed them up and painted them. Then we deposited them without ceremony on the lot, added a bunch of tree stumps, and waited.

Without any marketing or hype, people quickly started us­ing the benches, talking and sipping or just resting their feet. Lo and behold, this ad hoc commons produced not a tra­gedy but rather a comedy, in the root sense of that word.

What makes this “commons” possible is that the private owner of the lot is an older man who lives about twenty miles away and for whatever reason has been happy to let the lot sit empty. Lately we heard that the owner has gone into a home, which raises concerns about the heirs.I was hoping for something like that. What I didn’t antici­pate was how good I’d feel. The people sitting there don’t know where the benches came from, but I do. My son, who helped me paint them, feels great pride as well. Part of the hidden narrative of a commons is the rewards it gives to those who make it better.

Will the property fall to the son or daughter with an MBA who will look at the family inventory and see—horrors!—an un­der­performing asset? Will the lot be sold to conform to the strict code of economically correct behavior, or to appease a petulant sibling?

We are discussing contingency plans. But meanwhile it is clear that the threat to our commons is not the inherent “tragedy” of it, but rather the tragedy that might arise from profit-maximizing ownership of it.

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