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Lecture was just like this

Bwog sent over our resident Building Buff Briana Last to report on last night’s talk, “Public Space and Public Consciousness” at the Event Oval in the Diana Center at 6 pm. The lecture was given by Michael Kimmelman as part of the Barnard Department of Education’s “For the Public Good” series. This series is part of a response to Karla FC Holloway’s new book, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics. The work examines instances where “medical issues and information that would usually be seen as intimate, private matters are forced into the public sphere.”

Michael Kimmelman is no schmo. As the New York Times‘ architecture critic, an Ivy-League graduate,  and an itinerant concerto pianist, he couldn’t help but share his knowledge of the arts with precision and eloquence to an eager audience last night. His talk, infused with theoretical concerns about the human need for public space and what that need means was a beautiful addition to the ongoing Salon series at Barnard probing the question of what private matters should be addressed in the public sphere.

Kimmelman did not fall short of this task. He provided an interesting look into why public spaces are important and how cities, particularly ones as densely-populated as New York can attempt to understand how to maximize their space. He began by reminding an audience that despite the advent of the digital age, “Our human instinct is to come together” and after seeing the response to 9/11, to Occupy Wall Street, and the events at Tahir Square, it is not the internet, but cities, “that prove to ourselves that we are together and that there is solidarity among us.” He continued later, “No matter how new media express collective mourning in protest, nothing can replace people going to the streets. Historical upheaval is often linked to place. This is because places haunt our imaginations, they stick with us.”

The talk turned from the theoretical to the practical. He touched on how New York dealt with the allocation of space and the reduction of trafficking for Penn Station—not so well it turns out—and how cities around the world are utilizing their spaces in innovative and cooperative ways, as opposed to the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) or, frankly anyone’s, attitude that pervades municipal relationships with its residents in the United States. He bemoaned the plethora of wasted space in this country (according to him there are about eight parking spots for every car in America) but celebrated the advent of American architects that are attempting to reinvent these spaces for the better. If “the public realm is what we own and control,” why not start building gardens where there once was asphalt?

It was Kimmelman’s note about why public space matters and how the increase in privatization of these spaces is inevitably destructive for cities that truly hit home. That Occupy Wall Street found itself a home in Zucotti Park, a privately owned public space (POPs) was not just an irony that some cynical reporters found humorous. These areas can be opened and closed at the whim of their private sponsors, whose interests do not always ally with the citizens who find reprieve in these parks. It is the urban planner’s job to “carve out of the grid” and create “compression chambers” in the otherwise busy hubub of the metropolitan life. These spaces are instrumental to our understanding of the world the world around us; moreover, as citizens, we must demand them.

Axl Rose via Wikimedia Commons