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Thoughts on a Problem of Public Space

By Molly Brassard

The ‘center’ of the town I grew up in contains a classic feature of colonial New England community structure, the common.  Today, it is a sacred park space with trees, stone monuments and seasonal plantings.  In the late 1700’s it was a shared yard around which the town grew.  A century later, as industry thrived, it became a hub in an otherwise agrarianregion.  By the late 20th century, it had become a symbolic but generally empty space as cars replaced trolleys, buggies and pedestrians.  Today people zoom into the center of town, struggle to park in the paved area that wasn’t originallydesigned for autos, run into a store or the town hall, hop back in their cars and take off.  Anybody within the green seems exposed and crowded by constantly buzzing traffic.

There was a time, however, about ten years ago, when a group of young teenagers crowded it every day;  they were using the space as the common ground, its original intent, and more importantly, as a tool for interaction.  These teenagers shared the spot with each other and never tried to keep anyone out of it.  They were out in the open for residents, police and town officials to keep an eye on.  They weren’t hiding in the shadows or conspiring to misbehave, however, the older generations and local business owners couldn’t stand that these teens were taking over their sacred common.  They crossed the street too much, sat on the benches too much, and walked on the sidewalks too much.  Despite arguing that they had citizens’ right to occupy the space they were eventually pushed out.  They were put back behind closed doors, shut into their houses, and moved to places of less supervision.

After the teen takeover episode the town opened a new ‘Teen Center’ in the basement of an old elementary school where adolescents would have full access to a specifically designated public space.  The small space offered arcade games, television, music, and couches with police supervision and some “good clean fun.”  Community officials missed the point terribly and the doors of the ‘Teen Center’ were shut not too long after its opening because of inactivity.

The teens didn’t want to be stuck in a basement with prescribed fun items, or be told where they were allowed to go.  They wanted open and open-ended space where they could establish themselves as members of the community.  They wanted to be recognized and nurtured by the landscape within which they were raised, but instead their environmental needs were ignored. A great opportunity to build social strength was missed, and the delicate relationship between a town’s youth and their sense of place was compromised

As architects of structure, and society, we are uniquely capable of influencing the healthy growth of communities.  In New England, many towns face difficulties in accommodating all residents within original Colonial frameworks.  Was the picturesque nostalgia of the town common compromised by the teenagers?  Perhaps their occupation was not appropriate, but the inherent spatial properties that attracted them may have been successfully mimicked elsewhere.  Despite municipalities facing tight budgets and accelerated schedules, we have the potential to recognize programming opportunities, impending programming failures such as the ‘Teen Centerand to work with cities and towns on the meaning and capacities of their open spaces.