The public square

What is the focal point of community in many countries other than ours? The public square, of course. And what is lacking in most of our cities and towns? Naturally, the public square.

Last weekend at the 20th annual Potrero Hill Festival, I had a little taste of what a public square in my neighborhood might feel like. As in a public square, we could sit outdoors at tables while enjoying food and drinks from nearby vendors and listening to music. As in a public square, there were men, women, and children of all ages and from diverse backgrounds. And as in a public square, I ran into many people I knew: neighbors, co-workers, members of the community-building group I’m part of, my chiropractor, local politicians, and even my former guitar teacher, who was playing in one of the bands featured that day.

I appreciated this feeling of connection to others and enjoyment of a sunny day so much that I didn’t want to leave the festival. And I’m not a big fan of street fairs; normally, I find them too crowded and commercial, and they all seem the same. This one was different to me not only because the crowd was not so thick as to be uncomfortable, but also because I knew some of the people in it. It wasn’t just one more street fair—it was my neighborhood, with my neighbors.

Some of the people I saw there that day I know only in passing, because I live near them or work in the same office with them. Others are involved with me in efforts to improve our neighborhood, and those are the people with whom I’m starting to build real relationships, the kind you can have only when you spend time with people regularly—and especially when you work on something together.

And that’s exactly what you’d find in a public square: a mixture of strangers, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, and friends. A public square provides a setting to relax and enjoy the sun, food, drinks, music, and the company of others. Increasingly, we isolate ourselves at home with our TVs and computers (as I am now, writing this post!), so we need this kind of venue more than ever. I’d like to find a way to extend the feeling I had at the Potrero Hill Festival to the rest of the year. Of course, it’s hard to retrofit an existing neighborhood to accommodate a public square. But perhaps something like that can be incorporated in the new development that will replace the current public housing in Potrero Hill. If so, the public housing revitalization will add something to the neighborhood that we might not be able to get any other way: a public square.

4 thoughts on “The public square

  1. Rafael

    Yes, I think the single best, most cost effective component of public space would be a public square in the Rebuild Potrero development. It can be inexpensive compared to a fully built special purpose building. And it’s also relatively cheap to maintain. It’s open and so feels welcoming to all neighbors. It’s a general-use concept, so it is easily adapted for performances, receptions, speeches, teaching, and playing. With a gazebo in the center it provides a fixed stage for any purpose.

    Developers face the pressures to build special purpose elements, like a recreation hall, a youth center, a theater, or a senior center. But a public square can address much of those needs in a single mostly open space accessible by just walking to it. It’s one reason European cities feel so much more livable than U.S. cities. And in this era of downsizing, the public square becomes a compelling option to save money and maximize benefit. High ROI!

  2. Elliot

    It’d be great to see the part of 20th in front of the library converted to a square. You could take out a few parking spots on each side and really narrow the street. It’d be a place to eat a sandwich, drink coffee, read a book, or for kids to play around.

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