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Why Public Space Matters
Setha Low
Oxford University Press, 2022

For the past number of decades, Setha Low has conducted ethnographic research to study the importance of public space within cities. This approach led to her newest book, “Why Public Space Matters,” which centers around New York but also highlights pertinent examples in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. 

Considering the question “What if public space was not public?,” Low analyzes Jones Beach, one of New York’s most popular state parks. Located close to the city on Long Island, this region retains its hauntingly iconic Robert Moses-led infrastructure that disincentivized poorer, minority populations from utilizing its public amenities. While Jones Beach remains a difficult destination to reach without the use of an automobile, the diversity of its current users stands in profound contrast to the design intentions of Moses 100 years prior. 

After two years of research, Low finds Jones Beach remarkable in the unique sense of belonging it cultivates, which “is a critical component of democracy and public space.” An interviewed user pointed out that Connecticut, as well as towns farther east on Long Island, struggles with maintaining publicly accessible beaches due to constant privatization and fears Jones Beach will befall a similar fate as them.

While accessibility and inclusivity are foundational to public space, infrastructure for recreational exercise promotes its use. As with Jones Beach, the constant use of Walkway Over the Hudson — a pedestrian bridge in upstate Poughkeepsie, New York — enhances a community that has struggled with limited investment, a declining population and workforce, and an increasing crime rate in recent decades. The longest elevated footbridge in the world, Walkway is a former railway that has shared similar success to the High Line in Manhattan in its revitalization efforts, albeit at a drastically more modest scale. 

Low, along with her colleague Suzanne Scheld, conducted “walking interviews,” during which they recorded feedback from local users without interrupting their use of the bridge. Two young mothers were amongst Low’s first respondents and expressed that Walkway allows them to solidify “their sense of health and well-being” while strengthening their friendship through consistent activeness. Another user agreed that Walkway enables exercise, as he runs religiously to “prevent another stroke.” While the incentive to exercise was omnipresent, Low and Scheld were pleasantly surprised to find that public space improved health and well-being in numerous ways in Poughkeepsie. 

Low progresses to discuss the necessity of streets and sidewalks as an enabler of the informal workforce. Informal work is often unfairly stigmatized as illegal; however, Low notes that “most informal workers [such as domestic workers and street vendors] pay taxes and obtain municipal licenses.” While informal work is common in the developing world, it is also visible in the United States, such as throughout Manhattan, where sidewalks are filled with vendors that sell everything from hot dogs to counterfeit luxury handbags. A lack of public space would severely limit their ability to earn a wage. 

Low then shifts to the recent overtaking of public space when New York restaurants occupied streets and constructed shelters for outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic. The privatization of space “changed the way the media, urban planners, and city officials reacted to spatial incursions during the crisis” in an effort to save businesses from permanent closure. While the discussion over the privatization, or publicization, of space is constantly debated, Low turns to an Argentinian context where the conflict “is about who has the ‘moral’ right” to occupy public space: the trash collectors — an honorable informal workforce position that has existed for decades — or the unhoused who gather refuse as scavengers desperate to feed their families. At a minimum, the seemingly constant battle over public space — who it belongs to and how it should be used — emphasizes its societal importance. 

In general, Low has written a masterful overview of why public space matters to the health of individuals, cities, and society. Her writing explores various topics concerning the public realm and provides thoroughly researched examples, both domestic and international. The ethnographic approach to Low’s research, and consequently this book, yields a manageable read that isn’t cluttered with overtly academic jargon. While Low was certain to mention a variety of topics, including how public space facilitates places for healing, reflection, and protest, there was room for further exploration. The lack of examples from mid-sized cities within the United States weakened the book in terms of its connection to an American audience that might not frequent New York, especially given the strength of public design projects in such cities in recent decades. 

Low successfully ends her book with a lengthy yet critical last chapter that serves as a “how-to” for analyzing public space, providing agency to the reader regardless of their background or familiarity with the subject. This helps distinguish her book from other similar publications and remains consistent with her ethnographic approach to identifying and understanding the world around us. While this is a pleasant conclusion, there is no mention of the potential future influence of public space, and Low instead entrusts the reader with the power to determine that. “Why Public Space Matters” should be at the forefront of the bookshelf for anyone who is even marginally curious about the public realm and how spaces designed for public use affect our daily lives. 

Cole Von Feldt is a designer, photographer, and writer educated in Austin and Copenhagen and trained in New York and Houston. He currently lives and works in New York.

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