Monday, March 10, 2014

Civic Space: Strange Platypus(es)

Have I always had an appreciation for civic space?  I don't know.  What I do know is that I've been thinking about it recently.  The sudden changes in Houston's weather have made it an ideal time for visiting the botanical gardens near my home.  Sudden hot spells bring out all the flowers in a riot of colors.  Sudden cold spells drive most of the people away so that the wife and I can enjoy a quiet and lingering stroll.  If I had my druthers, I'd spend a fair part of every week in the botanical gardens and the arboretum with quick jaunts over to the library and Starbucks.  Well, so much for my selfish little fantasies....

I grew up in a town where fifteen percent of the land was set aside as open space.  Much of the geographic center was taken up by ancestral farms.  In addition to all this wonderful, rural space, it was (and still is) common practice to let the forest grow up where it will.  There were also the wonderful cemeteries, the old railway bridge, and the beautiful Victorian library.  Our life there was vastly enriched by regular access to all these places.

When we moved to the Los Angeles area, the civic resources were immense.  High-quality free Shakespeare performances could be found just about anywhere in the summer months.  Then there were the museums and parks: The Getty (both of them), The Huntington Gardens, The Norton Simon, The Gene Autry, and up the coast was Hearst Castle.  Then there were the miles of coastline along the PCH and the national parks.  Redlands, where I spent some time, had been built by East Coast money and had all the wonderful Victorian civic culture of a Connecticut small town.

So now I live in Houston and take regular advantage of the Museum District, the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, and private institutions open to the public like Mr. Lanier's wonderful library.  This is what has gotten me thinking about civic space.  My thoughts aren't all in order yet, but with millennials' general habits being toward seeking experiences, I think America's civic culture is about to get a sudden boost.  What will that mean?  I don't know.  If millennials focus on experiences and not creating wealth it will be a challenge for them to maintain civic spaces in an economy that continues to stagnate.  Companies may fill the gap by providing psuedo-civic space along with the sale of goods (think Starbucks and Panera Bread).  Houston, with its lack of zoning laws, takes this to the extreme in mass planned communities like The Woodlands (think about a committee of architects from Greenwich and Orange County getting together to build a town in Texas).  Of course, such solutions are reliant on a thriving economy.  There will always be people like the Laniers who provide civic or quasi-civic space out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but their generosity is also subject to the vagueries of the economy and inheritance laws.  We might look to the States or the Federal Government, but, as California shows, their ability to create and maintain civic space is dependent on the economy and the willingness of citizens to endure higher taxes.  In the end, the future of American civic space, as in the past, will rely on some combination of all these entities.  And that's about as far as my thinking has gotten right now...  Any thoughts of your own?

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