Res Civitas non-Gratis: 21st Century Public Realm

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

The rise of 21st century social technology, in combination with the loss of our 20th century economy, has contributed to the closing of many neighborhood civic buildings — libraries and post offices — and to the private development that inevitably replaces them.

San Diego’s North Park Post Office (White Building), now closed. Click for larger view.

San Diego’s Golden Hill Post Office (Flat Roof). My local, now closed. Click for larger view.

As Leon Krier has rightly pointed out, we live our daily lives in both private and social realms. Our social lives are built upon the social connectivity that occurs in our civic spaces and institutions. Streets and sidewalks make the majority of our public realm, and we spend too much of that time in isolated, high-speed automobiles. Our streets and sidewalks are in a woeful shape and we lack the infrastructure funding to maintain them, thus a further degradation of the public realm.

One of San Diego’s shoddy streets. Yep, that’s a Jack-in-the-Box.

With churches, social clubs, shops, restaurants and bars being private, and public/private partnerships being relied upon to build our parks, plazas and gathering places, we appear to have passed a tipping point — one that the Occupy Wall Street episode captured so vividly as it unfolded in NYC’s private/public Zuccotti Park.

Zuccotti Park, home base to Occupy Wall Street and a civic space with a curious private/public relationship. Photo credit:

It is time to discuss and investigate the meaning of civic in the 21st century. Below is how I would craft a new era of civic space in the 21st century.

How would you?

Kier Corner with a Blackson Twist: Golden Hill, 25th and Broadway. Existing condition.
Click for larger view.

Kier Corner with a Blackson Twist: Proposed site plan.
Click for larger view.

Kier Corner with a Blackson Twist: Site plan illustrated.
Click for larger view.

–Howard Blackson

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Filed under Back of the Envelope, Development, Financing, Planning and Design, Public Policy, Theory and Practice

6 responses to “Res Civitas non-Gratis: 21st Century Public Realm

  1. Pingback: The Disappearance of the Public Realm | APA News Feed

  2. Your design is an improvement for sure. (It’s been interesting watching the shifts in tastes of shopping districts over the past several decades. I hope we’re heading in a good direction now)
    But your comment about e-media leading to closure of libraries may not always be accurate. Some libraries are thriving as 3rd places rather than just as a place to check out books. Libraries see themselves as purveyors of information regardless of the medium. Like the successful railroads who saw their business as transportation, not just railroading.

  3. In San Diego, we are building a new downtown Main Public Library… that includes a School to get the funding. This mix will modify the ‘public’ accessibility aspect of the building. An election year, our leaders debate library issues in either/or terms and the local neighborhood libraries are suffering from closures, limited hours/access. The local libraries are very internet/computer accessible, which is the ‘change’ in their components, so I don’t entirely agree with my statement either, but they are marginalized in funding deficit terms. We are losing neighborhood civic space and have no replacement mechanism… or desire?

  4. Pingback: The Dreaded Density Issue | PlaceShakers and NewsMakers

  5. Kent Strumpell

    Further evidence of the library’s ability to endure, Santa Monica’s main library has a lovely inner courtyard with a cafe, tables and chairs. This simple amenity has provided the infrastructure for social encounters in a civic setting. More facilities like this could both provide more gathering places and bring much-needed revenue to institutions.

  6. Pingback: The Dreaded Density Issue | PlaceShakers and NewsMakers | DFW REimagined – The future of real estate

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