The revival of the “public square” in US cities

The revival of the “public square” in US cities

clevelandThe creation of more participatory and livable urban spaces is becoming a strong global trend. There is no lack of stories from cities around the world highlighting innovative and collaborative projects about every aspect of urban life: housing, public safety, architecture and design, transportation, and the overall economy (just to mention a few). Even most US megacities are discovering new ways to put in action the old concept-practice of a city as a common good. In some case this means a strong push for reclaiming the local Public Square – going well beyond the general idea of a just place where you pass through to reach somewhere else.

The most recent example is Cleveland, Ohio, whose City Councilors are well intentioned to revive the original project of its founder. When Moses Cleaveland laid down the town in 1796 he imagined a central open air as a New England-style commons. Unfortunately very soon roads and traffic took over, steadily intruding on its civic purpose. It became a typical transit hub. Until recently years, when “it just turned into more like a series of big traffic islands”, says the landscape architect James Corner. He is now in charge of re-transforming the original Cleveland’s Public Square, partly based on the New York’s High Line Park famously designed by Corner in 2006 with the final phase opened to the public in September 2014 and inspired to a similar project completed in Paris in 1993.

The final design will cost about $32 million and construction started last March, to be completed in summer 2016. It is based on an elevated park above the busy intersection, with a long promenade featuring native plants and trees, a café that becomes a beer garden in summer and other informal areas. One the main streets below will also be closed, while narrowing other passages for public buses. The main purpose is to create a variety of spaces promoting people’s gathering, casual encounters and that sort of “cultural friction that spark urban energy”. Along with a paradigm shift for public space in Cleveland, local developers and administrators are also quick to point out its overall economic benefits, from a higher value of surrounding buildings to a new business renaissance. Indeed, we know too well that the economic push is imperative to keep a city vibrant and lively, otherwise people will simply leave.

This re-appropriation of the city center as a commons happening now in Cleveland mirrors similar projects in San Francisco, Seattle, Memphis and Chicago, all centered upon James Corner “revivalist” approach. A context based on the central idea and practice of a public square that becomes a city centerpiece and where “democracy plays out”. It is not just a 21-century vision of the old colonial commons, but also a place where innovation, culture and business meet to create a shared agora for all citizens alike. Something that under many aspects goes even beyond the well-known smart cities approach to promote broader participation and creative input especially from local people as part of a wider circle of “city makers”.

This tendency is finally gaining ground in many US urban centers, including such projects as the in-residence artist program at the San Francisco city dump or the plan to halt the dramatic occurrence of blight in Gary, Indiana, using a data-based demolition strategy. Also worth mentioning are a fast-growing vertical farming movement in small town Wyoming and Café Momentum, a Dallas restaurant where young non-violent offenders are trained in that industry skills while paying them a living wage. Aimed at creating a urban commons narrative, these and similar experiences around the world are quite promising and exciting. But how successful could they be? Can this marriage between urban commons and democratic innovation actually work? Instead of a typical “wait and see” answer, a more appropriate reply would be: let’s roll our sleeves up and make it real.


Cresce anche in USA la tendenza a riappropriarsi della Piazza Pubblica in quanto concetto e pratica l’affermazione della città come commons. L’ultimo esempio riguarda Cleveland, in Ohio, dove le autorità locali hanno dato il via alla ricostruzione della Public Square in pieno centro, riprendendone l’idea partecipativa del fondatore Moses Cleavaland, che nel 1796 si era ispirato al modello dei commons del New Engand. Il progetto (32 milioni di dollari, pronto nell’estate 2016) è stato affidato a James Corner, già noto per aver creato il popolare High Line Park di New York City nel 2006. Un percorso verso gli “urban commons” che stimola e richiede il cinvolgimento diretto di tutti cittadini.