The Public Square

Professor Emily Talen on the lack of quality civic places to express opinions


My name is Emily Talen. I am currently an associate professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, where I teach courses on community design and the history of planning cities.

Every time I hear this radio segment, the "Public Square", I feel a sense of loss about our own lack of the real thing. We may not want to admit it, but here in Champaign-Urbana we lack quality civic places. Our public square is, quite literally, a virtual reality.

Neglect of public space has deep consequences. Public gathering places - real places, not virtual ones - are not only an essential part of a good town, but they're an essential part of a well-functioning democracy. Public gathering places reinforce community identity, stimulate a healthy civic culture, and bring people together - essential for a diverse society.

When cities have a weak civic realm, public expressions of democracy become undignified, problematic and inaccessible when they should be central. The public demonstration activities of AWARE, an anti-war group, are an example. I'm not a member of this group, but it saddens me when I see fellow citizens who are taking the time to participate in civic life being forced to stand in one of the most inhospitable places imaginable - North Prospect. Understandably, this group is trying to find a more dignified place to carry out their right to free speech and peaceful public protest. But their negotiations with privately owned spaces are met with resistance. There is too much ambiguity about what is private and what is public: privately owned places, even if they function as de facto public realms, are controlled by people who don't feel they have a stake in upholding the culture of democracy.

I see precious little effort expended in attempting to dignify and strengthen our civic realm. This does not have to involve large expenditures - there are small and large ways to support public places. Even a concerted effort to improve sidewalks is an important civic act. It only requires an attitude that values the physical expression of collective life. Now, as the City of Urbana touts its newest commercial development in the five points area - boasting bigger and better retailing opportunities - there is a perfect chance to give attention to the public aspects of this new growth. Let's give tangible meaning to the importance of the public square.