The Mauling of Public Space

The Mauling of Public Space

In his book Edge City, Joel Garreau tells the story of Bridgewater Township, a community of about forty thousand people located in New Jersey. Like earlier cities that were situated at the intersection of transportation routes, it owes its location to the confluence of two superhighways, routes 287 and 78. Although Bridgewater was originally a bedroom community for professionals who worked in New York, it gradually developed its own local economy with offices, businesses, and services. What it lacked was a sense of place. Local residents dreamed of a town center, some composite of a New England village green and a Tuscan piazza, a place where old people could gossip, young people could farsi vedere (make oneself seen), and mothers could bring young children while getting a latté, a sandwich, or some postage stamps. After more than a decade of discussion, in 1988 they inaugurated Bridgewater Commons, a mall.

Ironically, the Bridgewater Commons Mall was not originally the initiative of commercial real estate developers. It was the compromise reached by the community agency committed to maintaining the small town’s quality of life and avoiding the strip-mall aesthetic. Individual retailers could not provide the capital necessary to implement a comprehensive plan that included environmentally sensitive landscaping and rational traffic management. More important, a traditional downtown could not guarantee the most highly prized amenities: safety, cleanliness, and order.

The Bridgewater Commons and hundreds of supermalls like it have long troubled architects and critics who bemoan the homogeneity, sterility, and banality of the suburbs. Approaching the mall primarily as an aesthetic or even a sociological issue, however, overlooks the enormous political consequences of the privatization of public space. Public sidewalks and streets are practically the only remaining available sites for unscripted political activity. They are the places where insurgent political candidates gather signatures, striking workers publicize their cause, and religious groups pass out leaflets. It is true that television, newspapers, and direct mail constantly deliver a barrage of information, including political leaflets. But unlike the face-to-face politics that takes place in the public sphere, these forms of communication do not allow the citizen to talk back, to ask a question, to tell a story, to question a premise. The politics of the public sphere requires no resources—except time and perseverance. Public spaces are the last domains where the opportunity to communicate is not something bought and sold.

And they are rapidly disappearing. These places are not banned by authoritarian legislatures. Their disappearance is more benign but no less troubling. The technology of the automobile, the expansion of the federal highway system, and the growth of residential suburbs have changed the way Americans live. Today, the only place tha...