By CivicMoxie Spring Intern Sydney Throop
Picture yourself front and center in a huge stadium, surrounded by thousands of your fellow city-dwellers. All of a sudden, a chariot races ferociously across your view and you spot your favorite chariot-driver in the lead. You jump to your feet and cheer.
This was a normal weekend activity if you happened to be a citizen of Rome during the height of the Roman Empire; chariot races also happened to be free. Sounds pretty great, right? But the famous “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome came with no rights to political representation, an imperial government with absolute power, and an intensely hierarchical society.
What do chariot races and gladiator fights have to do with modern urban planning? The idea of governments providing public services, spaces, and infrastructure for the benefit of the people is clearly an old one, laying the groundwork for similar municipal and state services today. But, simply giving away free food and entertainment (and roads) doesn’t engage community members; it isn’t a dialogue. As part of modern democratic societies, most urban planners have come to appreciate the value of true public engagement and have increasingly integrated it into their work—including in the form of placemaking.
Today, local governments strive to create spaces for social gathering not for the purpose of merely appeasing the public, but in order to build a sense of community while also sparking interaction and innovation. While programs to design and enliven public plazas and streets may seem to take a page out of ancient Rome’s book, the emphasis in placemaking is on the “making” more than on the “place.” Urban planners who hope to stimulate community spaces with creativity and joy know that we need to fully engage communities in shaping their own environments, not work from the top down.
In recent years Boston has reignited the creation and programming of public spaces through placemaking, from the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the popular Lawn on D to City Hall Plaza. The most successful efforts have integrated arts and culture into such spaces, both as a public good and a way to foster civic engagement. This year, Mayor Walsh of Boston awarded the Boston Creates initiative $1 million for artistic ventures in the community through cultural urban planning programs, including public art exhibits and place-based interventions.
In particular, the Lawn on D has created a special draw for many Bostonians. From families on the weekends to college students taking a break after classes, this public space in South Boston has been extremely successful in drawing a crowd, with its free games, art installations, and summer concerts. But with The Lawn on D’s expensive upkeep, the City of Boston has considered charging entry fees—a proposal that has drawn some controversy. Is a public space truly public if it isn’t free to all? Though placemaking goes beyond “bread and circuses” to foster community engagement and even democracy, perhaps urban planners and placemakers should still remember ancient Rome when programming public spaces. In our best work as urban planners, the mechanisms for funding, maintaining, and programming these spaces are part of the design process.