Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sprawl Part I: Democracy and Public Space

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (1st Amendment to the US Constitution)
Democracy depends on the free and open discussion of ideas, and the right to free speech and peaceful assembly depends on the public space.  In antiquity, proto-democratic space was the agora, a place to discuss and deliberate the good.  In the city plazas, streets, sidewalks, parks, squares, piazzas, and other spaces act as these places for events.

What has happened to these public spaces in the last fifty years?  The suburban space is essentially designed around the car.  Jackson's suburbs, and those of many other US cities, began an exponential rate of growth after the introduction of the interstate in the late 60's.   Along with the automobile came a decline in sidewalks and increase in gated communities.  Instead of increased interaction of ideologies, suburban sprawl has encouraged clustering.  Groups of like-minded individuals have assembled together to fight the culture war.  Voting lines can be drawn to match spatial divides.

Sprawl has given rise to a particular suburban institution to which we must pay careful attention - the shopping mall.  The shopping mall makes that which was once public space into private, controlled territory.  In "Reclaiming and Remaking Public Space: Toward an Architecture for American Democracy" Kevin Mattson writes:
Though it draws citizens to a public square of sorts, the shopping mall is de facto a private space - run by a management company and owned by investors.  Due to this private status, many mall managers believe they have no responsibility toward the U. S. Constitution and its protection of free speech. . . . Unlike civic spaces of yore the shopping mall was created to encourage the private act of consumption.  In fact, contemporary architects design the mall for shopping - and shopping alone. (National Civic Review, Vol 88: 2, Summer 1999, 134-35)
The legal debate (ex. Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner) over whether malls, indoor and out, are public or private space has continued to rage, with some states erring more on the side of the protection of private properties and others more on the side of free speech.

What about Renaissance at Colony Park, Dogwood, Northpark, just to name a few?  Although the debate is important, doesn't the larger problem seem to be that of the architect, the urbanist, and the developer rather than the lawyer and the judge? 

What is to be done?  Is the solution New Urbanist communities, such as Seaside, FL or Lost Rabbit in Madison, MS, which are created from scratch to be "ideal towns"?  What about the older core of the city, Downtown Jackson and State St?  New Urbanism still has an air of omnipotence about it that, in contrast, no one can claim over Jackson.  In a consumer society, does the privatization of the public square scare us anymore?

Jan Mattiace, the marketing director for Mattiace Properties (one of the developers, along with H. C. Bailey Companies),  described Renaissance by saying "You feel like you're in a city."  The real question is, "are you?"


Darren said...

This is all awesome stuff. I find myself in a lot of conversations like this with people around here.

The 'manufactured' nature of these developments creates can't hold a candle to a real city that's grown organically.

For example, I went to school in New Orleans. When someone makes it outside of the tourist crowds of Bourbon Street, the French Quarter is a bustling, diverse area with more character than anywhere in America.

I visited Memphis recently and went by Beale Street. It was basically akin to being in an amusement park. It sounds like there's movement to let Farish take on some of the character that comes with its history. If you suddenly declare an area to 'be cool,' it almost certainly won't be.

Keep up the good work, Big Ear!

Bryan said...

good thoughts. Beale Street certainly has similar characteristics to the pseudo-city shopping centers. Beale Street may even be more disturbing in the fact that it is even harder to draw the line between what is private and public. When city streets are manufactured by private entities what kind of space is that? public? private? Spatial and urban constructs are playing out a very real transformation of the relationship of government to corporations.

Anonymous said...

These kinds of developments may generate revenue for the city, but that don't do anything to create or preserve any type of identity. What's different about nature of this development versus any other shopping community in the rest of the country?
It doesn't promote small unique businesses...just the corporations that can already afford to rent the space.

Stacy said...

While I think the public/private distinction has been historically important for architecture, in a world where even the most private parts of our lives can be lived in the public arena it is less relevant. Instead of a public/private dichotomy I think a we are facing a mind/body dichotomy.

It seems that these days, the internet is taking the place of the public square. It is a "place," albeit one devoid of a specific location, to share ideas and engage with one another in the way the public square did in the past (as we are here). The question then, as the internet can be located anywhere (even next to a Yeti according to one commercial), is what role does our built environment mean?

As children we live in our bodies, but as we age, we tend to locate our living more and more in our minds. Trends in Western society have exacerbated this transition in daily life in changes in our employment patterns. As our jobs shift from manufacturing -- a very bodily experience -- to a service industry -- based on the more theoretical construct of "service" -- we live less in our increasingly unhealthy bodies and more in a disconnected mental state.

While these societal changes have been embraced by some -- those who seek even more interactive information systems -- a backlash has formed in those who try to balance or offset it be it through an embracing of Eastern ideas of mind-body connections or a resurgence of recreational interest in former necessary domestic chores such as gardening, candle-making, or needlework.

It would seem that people today are longing for some escape from the information and want bodily experiences. So how does architecture respond to this? Trying to recreate a public square for information sharing and public discussion doesn't seem to be the need. Rather architecture might explore how to allow us to engage our bodies and lived bodily experiences for other purposes.

Bryan said...

That is a good point Stacy. The location of public space has moved into digital space in many ways (although I would not characterize it as a mind/body (or west/east) dichotomy). This blog is a perfect demonstration of that.

However, most of the means of sharing on the internet are largely controlled by private corporations, such as this blog being controlled by Blogger which is controlled by Google. There is a freedom that exists, but it is ultimately limited and part of a money making schema. Furthermore, access to the public space of the internet is still limited, although much less in recent years.

It is interesting to think of public squares that exist more for making artifacts rather than discussion. Etsy and other DIY websites are digital space for this to exist, but what about communal and local versions of this? I imagine some examples are arts and craft gatherings (Belhaven Market, Fondren after Five, etc). It is interesting to think how we could create this.

EM said...

For me Renaissance is more disturbing than Beale St. because, as amusement park as it is, Beale Street is still located within the fabric of the existing city. Whether they will protest or not, residents of memphis have more of a stake in it's appearance and success/failure. Renaissance is completely fabricated, and in my mind doomed to eventual abandonment. There is hardly anyone who will have a voice when it begins to decline. all of the resources used to build it up will be left to rot in 20 years when the general populous deems it "old" and will rather drive 20 more minutes to the newest beast.
I for one would love to protest in the "streets" of the Renaissance. There should be riots about this kind of thing. But people don't realize what they are being cheated out of. They are just glad they can get their Apple products, Anthropologie clothing, and whole foods "in town." AHHHH I've been mad about this since it sprouted, and I'd love to get arrested in the streets of Renaissance to spark the real debate about free speech in the public/private realm. The people need their city!

TimK said...

I'm with EM about Renaissance. EM also touches on the fundamental problem: this town runs through and discards shopping centers at an alarming rate.

I believe we have the population to support two regional shopping centers and no more. Leaving aside the question of whether large regional shopping centers are a good idea (answer: no), the way the Jackson area has handled this has amounted to an appalling waste of resources.

First we had Jackson Mall, which opened around 1970. Metrocenter opened in the late 1970s and was the "hot" place to shop, but Jackson Mall remained fairly lively until Northpark opened in 1984. The subsequent closing of the J. C. Penney and Gayfers stores at Jackson Mall sealed its fate; it went down extremely quickly starting in the mid-1980s. (Here I'm also ignoring the successful reuse of the mall, which serves as a shining example to other cities and other abandoned malls.)

The opening of Dogwood precipitated the rapid decline of Metrocenter in its turn. Metrocenter had been problematic for a while, but it was Dogwood's opening -- and the concomitant closing of some of Metrocenter's anchor stores -- that really did Metrocenter in.

Now there are signs that the opening of Renaissance is hurting Northpark, which was already under pressure from Dogwood. Northpark has more vacancies now than at any time I can remember since its very early days, before it was fully leased out (or almost, anyway).

It's a vicious cycle that ultimately could be avoided with real, healthy urban development.