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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

It's a most wonderful time for city places

Kaid Benfield

Posted December 21, 2011

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  Christmas market in Stockholm (by: Brian Colson, creative commons license)

  Stockholm (photo by Brian Colson)

The winter holidays remind me of how special public spaces can be, how they make cities, and us, more alive.

It is impossible to have a great community without great public spaces - appealing and accommodating streets, sidewalks, parks, storefronts, plazas, accessible cafes, and so on.  These are the essence of what many city planners and thinkers call "the public realm," to contrast with the realm of privately owned and secured homes, yards, and private office buildings.  People love communities from Paris to Santa Monica precisely because their public spaces are so enticing.  

In many parts of the world, more emphasis is placed on the quality of the public realm than here in the US, with the result that their private enclaves needn't be so lavish to provide their needs and nourishment.  A moderately sized apartment or townhome might suffice just fine, for example, if you have a world-class park and library at your door; the kitchen and dining room can be modestly sized if the cafes within an easy walk are plentiful, reasonably priced, relaxing and nourishing.

In the US, we have been doing much the opposite in recent decades.  Once, we used public funds to build great parks, libraries, boulevards and transportation systems - public assets every one.  But support for public spending dried up; isolated pods of poorly connected new subdivisions put very little within walking distance; and Americans started pouring our resources - sometimes more than we had, as the housing market collapse illustrates - into our outsized private realm of gates, fenced-in yards, and sealed houses, with outdoor life largely relegated to the rear, the least public of our outdoor spaces.

  Washington, DC downtown holiday market (by: Adam Fagen, creative commons license)  

  holidays at the Farmers' Market, The Grove, Los Angeles CA (by: Loren Javier, public domain)  Christmas market, Stuttgart, Germany (by: BuzzWolf, public domain)

  Top: Washington, DC (Adam Fagen)

  Bottom left: Los Angeles (Loren Javier).  Right: Stuttgart (BuzzWolf)

We do need some private places of our own - at least I do - but we love great public spaces where they exist.  They are where "community" happens.  I have been reminded over the last couple of weeks by several strolls through DC's highly animated downtown holiday market how much the winter holidays bring out in us a shared spirit, frequently experienced on sidewalks and plazas, whether they be iconic such as the brightly lit trees in Rockefeller Center and at the White House, or modest such as a handmade display on the lawn of a small town's place of worship. The best ones really come alive at this time of year, and this post is devoted to some great ones that I found on the web.

  holiday market, Colmar, Alsace, FR (by: Remi Stosskopf, public domain)

  Christmas market, Prague (by: Hynek Moravec, creative commons license)  Christkindle Market, Chicago (by: Christine Zenino, creative commons license)

  Top: Colmar, Alsace, France (Remi Stosskopf)

  Bottom left: Prague (Hynek Moravec).  Bottom right: Chicago (Christine Zenino)

  Rostock, Germany (by: Carsten Pescht, creative commons license)

         Pachuca, Mexico market during holiday season (by: Mircea Turcan, creative commons license)     market in Osaka, Japan between Christmas and New Year's (by: Janne Moren, creative commons license)

  Top: Rostock, Germany (Carsten Pescht)

  Bottom left: Pachuca, Mexico (Mircea Turcan). Right: Osaka, Japan (Janne Moren)

  holiday season @ Covent Garden, London (by: Edyta.Materka, creative commons license)

  St Ann's Square, Manchester, UK (by: Nigel Chadwick, creative commons license)  South Kensington, London (by: Andrew West, creative commons license)

  Top: London (Edyta.Materka)

  Bottom left: Manchester, UK (Nigel Chadwick).  Right: London (Andrew West)

  Christmas Market, Bratislava, Slovakia (by: Brian Colson, creative commons license)

  Bratislava, Slovakia (Brian Colson)

Move your cursor over the images for location detail, licensing information, and links to originals.  An earlier version of this post was published here.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC's video channel for sustainable communities.

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Joe CritelliDec 22 2011 05:44 AM

All we need now is for the people of Niagara Falls to support it.

JulianDec 22 2011 06:48 PM

Nice post. As you say, it's not just the big cities and publicly-supported events - it's the spontaneous gatherings too. Last year the Alster lake in Hamburg froze over and became a skate park. Here in Sheffield the snow has brought everyone out on the hills in the last couple of years - I posted some thoughts about that here:

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