Monday, November 6, 2006

The Power of Public Spaces

You can't study the culture of Rome without being struck by how much the Romans built and used public spaces like theaters, baths, parks, temples, arenas, and monuments. Roman cities are littered with that stuff, and a lot of it is still standing in Europe.

The spaces were well used. Prof. Herbert Bernario gave a nice talk at CAMWS about how ordinary Romans used public parks like the Camps Martius for exercise: wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, boxing, and riding for young men; ball-playing, walking, and swimming for everybody, including the elderly. Even Cicero had a workout routine.

The public baths also provided space for exercise as well as personal hygiene. They were a sort of ancient YMCA with free, or very cheap, admission.

The Campus Martius was scattered with all kinds of public monuments of a civic kind, such as the Ara Pacis in the Age of Augustus, so that as people did their daily workouts they were reminded of their own history and national accomplishments.

Putting aside the highly political nature of what got built in Rome, especially after the fall of the Republic, it strikes me that we don't use our public spaces very well, and that we're not building them even up to earlier American standards.

Rather, we've turned the building of public spaces over to private developers, and have replaced the forum and the agora with the mall and the lifestyle center.

Malls are nice things to have, but abandoning the public sphere entirely to private developers deprives us of opportunities to come together as a civic body to express our common ideals. We lose chances to remind and educate ourselves about our own culture and accomplishments, both local and national.

These are the kinds of thoughts that are on my mind as I get ready to vote on Greensboro's bond issues.


Anonymous said...

Well, we still do come together as a civic body to express our common ideals--it's what I'm doing right now.

David Wharton said...

Yes. But I'm thinking of expressions that are a result of public, official deliberation and action.

Things like public monuments & parks, like Guilford Courthouse Battlefield and like the Greensboro Historical Museum.

The new downtown park is also a good example.