Goldhagen: “Democracies Need Physical Spaces”

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic, argues that America’s public realm is best served by physical urban spaces that can enable “non-structured and non-goal-orientated” interactions among many kinds of people. The best places for these types of interactions? Great urban parks. She covers the role parks have played in enabling democracy, traces the impact  of Frederick Law Olmsted’s pioneering urban parks, explores a few contemporary parks that fit the ”great urban park” name, and outlines the rise of landscape urbanism, a theory that may be encouraging designers to better serve the public realm.

Goldhagen believes that American society “has become more an archipelago than a nation, increasingly balkanized into ethnic, class, faith, and interest groups whose members rarely interact meaningfully with people whose affiliations they do not in large measure share.” This balkanization, which has helped destroy the public realm, has taken the form of flight to the suburbs starting in the 1950′s, and, more recently, the ubiquitous World Wide Web. ”The Internet preaches an ideal of ‘customization’ and a cult of ‘communities of interest,’ creating ever-dividing microsplinters of social affinity and similarity, which are then further hardened by the new specialized channels appearing on cable television seemingly every month.”