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Open to the Public: Civic Space Now

What makes public space compelling and enjoyable? What, in fact, makes it public? Government funding? Municipal policing? The recent “occupation” of parks, plazas, and squares, including POPS (privately owned public spaces) by protest movements worldwide has focused attention on the significance—and indispensability—of broadly accessible public space as a setting for political demonstration. And now, amidst the ubiquity of digital communication, the simple desires for face-to-face encounters and a sense of community, however transitory, also compel us to seek out the shared experiences that public spaces provide. Yet public space, often slow in the making, is easily compromised. Vulnerable to market pressures, public space loses its essential character through excessive commercialization, branding, and programming. Its creation and maintenance require both patience and vigilance.

The contemporary public spaces presented in this exhibition—thirteen in New York and one each in the nation’s three next largest cites, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston—demonstrate a broad range of approaches to design, access, financing, and management. These case studies are primarily dedicated to congregation, circulation, or contemplation, though many combine elements of all these functions. Whatever their use and impact, however, each of the spaces seen here is intended to serve the public—as complex, confounding, and contested as that goal can prove to be.

Curator: Thomas Mellins