Green Square in Tripoli. Tahrir Square in Cairo. The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Washington's National Mall. We humans know, deep inside, that public places — squares and greens and plazas that are open to all — are more than just spaces for crowds.
Humans are social beings, and most of us understand on some level that coming together across class, ethnic and gender lines provides some of the glue that helps hold civilization together. Libya's celebrations, Egypt's protesters and even those annual July 4 throngs at the Mall are reminders of the symbolic and literal relationship between public places and democracy.
So what does it mean that we are letting our public places fall into disrepair?
A Johns Hopkins University group wrestled with those questions recently in an Eastern European capital whose problems have some surprising commonalities with many U.S. cities, including Baltimore. Whether those problems are decrepit public schools, disheveled parks or crumbling sidewalks, governments are struggling to find the money and public support to maintain and operate public places and institutions.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, about 40 urban scholars and planners affiliated with Johns Hopkins' International Urban Fellows Program were in town this summer for a conference examining the problem of infrastructure upkeep. (Disclosure: the program paid my expenses to travel to Sofia.) Fittingly, during their time in the mountain-ringed city they had to dodge potholes and ankle-turning sidewalk cracks and squirm past cars parked illegally on sidewalks. As City Architect Petar Dikov told the group, "Sofia is a beautiful city, but it is shabby and poorly maintained."
In some places, weeds were knee-high. In graffiti-splattered parks, benches were as likely to be broken as to offer respite. Along a pedestrian-only street, site of a city improvement project just 10 years ago, crumbling concrete and rusting metal betrayed shoddy workmanship and slipshod maintenance.
We are living with similar challenges in Baltimore and cities across the United States. The political and social conditions creating the problem may differ, but the symptoms look much the same.
Bulgaria is shaking off decades as a Soviet Communist satellite. As Mr. Dikov sees it, the Soviet era taught Bulgarians to wait for the state to do just about anything. Sofia architect Ivo Panteleev, a Johns Hopkins Urban Fellow in 1991-92, explains that under Communism, the city's public spaces were well-maintained but tightly controlled, a rigid orderliness that prevented the informal activities that in free societies enliven (and sometimes make messes of) public spaces. While the fall of Communism introduced the messiness of freedom as well as the ragged inequities of free enterprise, a development boom built luxurious — but private — shopping malls and fancy restaurants. Meanwhile, the parks, sidewalks and streets fell into disrepair.
Is this sounding familiar? Private space masquerading as "public" — until a visitor displeases the security guards? Letting public maintenance wane? The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the United States needs to spend $1.7 trillion on highways and transit systems by 2020. Local and state governments across the country have cut budgets drastically, including for places that serve the larger public good: parks, schools, bridges, streets, even lowly sidewalks. An analysis by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found almost half the states have made deep cuts in pre-kindergarten and/or K-12 spending, and half made major cuts in higher education.
Baltimore, like many recession-battered cities, has struggled. Its public schools are decrepit. A report last year from the American Civil Liberties Union found 70 percent of Baltimore schools in deplorable condition, with an estimated $2.8 billion in improvements needed. This, in a country that once upon a time envisioned its public schools as, in the words of 19th-century educational reformer Horace Mann, "one and the same for both rich and poor."
Many of the city's budget cuts (perhaps inevitably) have directly hit public institutions and places. Among a number of cuts in the past three years, the city has shortened library hours and trimmed park maintenance and median mowing. The city horticulture department won't maintain flowerbeds in various city parks this year or routinely prune shrubbery. Potholes aren't being repaired as quickly. Even money for graffiti removal has been reduced, with city officials hoping volunteers can lend a hand.
That hope reflects an American tradition of volunteerism — one that young activists in Sofia hope to nurture in their nation, too. One example is Dobromir Borislavov, 32. When he isn't working one of his three paying jobs, he's unpaid executive director of a nonprofit trying to improve a century-old former botanical garden in central Sofia.
These volunteer efforts, as well as government partnerships with private companies or groups, can succeed in many areas. Public-private partnerships are credited with helping New York City restore many of its well-loved parks. Baltimore also has a vigorous and successful network of private groups to support its parks. But even the best of those well-meaning initiatives tend to be random and scattershot, too often leaving behind the poorest and neediest people and neighborhoods. Volunteerism can't be relied on for providing city services, says Sandra Newman, the Johns Hopkins professor who directs the Urban Fellows Program. "The bottom line," she says, "is that does not get the job done."
Places have meaning, for history and our democracy, and so do decisions. In a free society, individuals sometimes decide to throw trash on the sidewalk or paint graffiti on a park monument. Government decisions also convey meaning, whether in a small Balkan country or the world's first great democracy. And these days, with too many of our public places and institutions falling into disrepair, what those government decisions say about our country's values may not be all that flattering.
Mary Newsom is a journalist and free-lance writer in Charlotte, N.C., where she is also associate director of urban and regional affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Urban Institute. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.