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The public realm

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We were talking about parks and open spaces in an all-day conference. One of the panels concerned itself with those agreeable small plazas that increasingly dot the downtown areas of our cities, open spaces constructed as part of major corporate developments. To a refreshing degree, in contrast with other areas of the urban environment, these enclaves seem well maintained, well cleaned, and safe. The streets around deteriorate; city parks show the effects of neglect and of a declining work force. Is it normal, is it healthy, that the private spaces of the city should so often appear more attractive than the public ones?

A member of the panel, Dr. Jean McClintock of the Parsons School, offered a provocative answer. She remarked that in our society institutions born of the public realm are almost all in difficulty. Public schools, public libraries, public parks, were great and original social inventions of the 19th century; now , in the 20th, they seem ill at ease. It is perhaps not the institutions themselves that are failing (it was implied), but the values that once sustained them, the environing culture from which they first drew their life.

On and off since then I have been thinking about the concept of the public realm -- and worrying about what it means when this realm tends to lose its hold on the minds of the people. Clearly, the public realm once possessed an objective, almost palpable, being. Men and women accepted the fact that outside their private existences stood a sphere of thought and action more pure, more disinterested and more ennobling than the preoccupations of the daily round. Here men's petty interests were transcended; their narrow ambitions were enlarged. The institutions that developed in these bracing airs were cherished as the finest expression of a civilized community.

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