Among the many and varied complaints about urban life in Atlanta, one rarely hears “There aren’t enough people just hanging around.” It’s much more common to hear the opposite (see any discussion of Atlantic Station or Five Points). But places where people of all ages and backgrounds can just spend time during almost any part of the day – without being expected to buy something or pay admission – have long been known by urban planners as vital to successful cities.
Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities reflects on how being out on the street, especially at night, became something that people in most American cities just don’t do.
“We went to great lengths to discourage the wrong people from hanging around, but this of course discouraged everyone else as well.”
Increased suburbanization and car ownership in American cities during the last 50 years have also meant increased privatization of leisure activities. For people who can afford them, home theaters, gym memberships, backyard playground equipment, indoor malls and chain coffee shops now replace the city centers, public parks and plazas that used to serve as community living rooms. People with other choices for places to spend their time drifted away from the streets. People without those choices stayed. Soon almost the only people hanging around on the street were people with nowhere else to go, leaving the impression that the streets were no place for “regular” people. At that point, Badger says, what would have once been called “lingering,” became “loitering.”
Laws and design standards meant to combat loitering led to the creation of even more uninviting, and thus emptier, streets. People like places where there are other people. Therefore, nobody goes where nobody goes.
Some cities are successfully throwing that trend into reverse with projects like Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line. Less wealthy cities will have to get more creative, Badger says, by carving out smaller, cheaper “oases” of public space for lingering. Until then, the streets will remain places where the police keep trying to chase the “wrong” people away, while everyone else stays home.