Where the sidewalk ends: How public spaces affect private lives

Even around Charlottesville's Downtown Mall, fences cordon private-use areas, signalling a disconnect between social groups. Photo: Robert Llewellyn Even around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, fences cordon private-use areas, signalling a disconnect between social groups. Photo: Robert Llewellyn

In urban design, decisions about road lanes, sidewalk widths and shade trees affect the rhythm of use in outdoor spaces—transportation and commerce, social activity, traffic, safety, recreation and even public health are determined by these choices. Urban planners have long been using the catchphrase “live, work, play” to describe an idyllic mixture of programming, but perhaps we need to take a more careful look at what living, working and playing mean to different people.

In some cities, like Venice, Italy, vehicular traffic is nonexistent, while pedestrian traffic traverses all manner of spaces: from public squares to private alleys, bustling streets to tiny walkways. The pedestrian experience is diverse but continuous, making the whole city feel accessible and fluid. And what’s more, beyond the integration of public spaces within the pedestrian street network, public areas in Venice also feel accessible to a diverse population of users because of the myriad ways in which they can be used: Restaurants set up tables, vendors set up street carts, children play soccer and friends share drinks, all within the same streetscape.

Here in Charlottesville, the downtown pedestrian mall is theoretically similar to this type of urban fabric—a mix of public and private space with vehicular traffic almost entirely removed. However, it functions more like other American town centers, serving a clientele that mostly arrives by car. While the side alleys of the Downtown Mall have begun to densify with more businesses, the mall itself is still somewhat disconnected from the neighborhoods on its perimeter, with the backs of its boutique shops remaining unadorned, unused and, in many cases, unwelcoming. Even on the mall, fences cordon private-use areas, which beckon to a particular social group and impart an exclusive atmosphere on public areas.

Commercial hubs like Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia are designated as mixed-use areas and often include outdoor play spaces or concert venues, in addition to offices and shops, but the apartments are expensive and the location within business parks and housing developments makes it a destination for shoppers and diners—more of an outdoor shopping mall than a public space. On a typical New York City block, too, the sidewalk is technically public but the streetscape is more of a commodified stage for those who patronize the shops lining it. Public parks are nestled into blocks, like islands within their surrounding landscape, with bars and playgrounds being kept decidedly separate.

In retrofitting our cities to incorporate truly public space that is both diverse and accessible, what lessons can be learned from places like Venice, small-town main streets and cozy villages? How can the public realm be made into a network, rather than patchwork? How can the streetscape play a larger role in welcoming people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds? Perhaps town centers and pedestrian malls are good models for the activation of public space within commercial centers, but they must be better integrated into the larger pedestrian realm in order to unite diverse communities, rather than divide them.

Lindsey Luria is pursuing a master of landscape architecture degree and certificate of historic preservation at UVA’s School of Architecture.