“Where are all the people?” — On The Use of Public Space

Several years ago I was driving in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin with a young friend who was newly arrived from China. It was her first time to the United States and she had been in the country for about a week. As we drove past a city park, which was empty, she turned to me and asked,

“Professor Cottle, where are all the people? I don’t see anyone.”

Having been in China previously, I understood the context of her question. In China, at least in the cities, people are visible everywhere. They are in the streets, the parks, and the sidewalks. But in Fort Atkinson, on that day, there were no people in the park, or on the street. I responded that people were either at work, at school, in their houses, or in their cars. The absence of people on the street or in the park was quite normal for Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.

My young friend’s question made me reflect on an observation that I knew intuitively to be true, but had not yet articulated to myself. Namely, the character and feel for any place is determined largely by how

Old folks and young chatting in the Lijiang town square.
Village Plaza – Lijiang, China (Yunnan Province)

the people who live there occupy public space. Different cultures occupy public space differently. In some cultures people speak to each other when in public. In others, people never speak to each other unless they are in trouble, or they are up to no good. In some cultures people tend to linger, to saunter, to move casually. In others they move rapidly through public space as if it were filled with a poisonous gas. In cultures as diverse as China and Mexico, one can find places where people will go to the public parks or the town square to meet their friends, to kill time, or just to see what is going on. In contrast, there are cultures such as the American Mid-West  in which people almost never go to a public park unless it is to attend a special event such as a concert or perhaps, a farmers market.

Here in Wisconsin we rarely go to a park in large numbers unless there is a public function such as Fourth of July fireworks, a ball game, a concert, an ethnic food festival, or some other organizationally sponsored event. It is true that children often go to play in the parks, almost always accompanied by adults. And we sometimes go to parks for a family picnic on holidays. Other than these occasions, parks are mostly empty. And so are the town squares, where they exist. Indeed, people who spend lots of time in parks when there are no special events arouse suspicion. We can take Madison, Wisconsin as an example. Madison is the capital of the state. On its city square sits the state capitol building. Other than the state legislators and the governor who work in the capitol, it is, for the most part, only the homeless and the mentally ill who inhabit the city square when no special events are underway.

People already gathered at Oaxaca's shade covered town square. Poinsettias ring the area.
Oaxaca’s Zócalo in Early Morning – January, 2008

If we contrast the sparse and routinized use of public space in Janesville, Wisconsin (where I live) with that of Oaxaca, Mexico, (a city I know well), the differences in the cultural uses of public space are immediately apparent. The city square of Oaxaca (the Zócalo) teems with people at any time of day from the morning until late night. Surrounded by open air restaurants, residents go to the Zócalo to socialize, to meet friends, or go with their family to enjoy a meal. Those who cannot afford the restaurants buy food from the vendors that dot the square and the park area known as the Alameda immediately to the north of the square. Children and parents play with long tubular balloons they like to toss high into the air; the little ones squealing with delight as they chase after them. Teenagers walk around the park with their grandparents. Couples stroll hand in hand. Clown performances entertain children.Street musicians play for tips. Families and friends sit and chat with no special agenda in mind. Sometimes there is a band concert in the band shell. On most Sundays the Oaxaca City Band gives a concert that lasts about an hour.  None of the special events dominate the overall atmosphere. There is always something for everyone.

Balloon Vendors at the Zócalo in Oaxaca - January 2005
Balloon Vendors at the Zócalo in Oaxaca – January 2005
Choosing a balloon toy
Choosing a Balloon Toy at the Zócalo

There is nothing in the entire state of Wisconsin, so far as I know, that compares to the social atmosphere of the Zócalo. I have accompanied many Wisconsinites to Oaxaca. Arriving at the Zócalo, their faces invariably display delight and fascination as they survey the scene for the first time. And although the newcomers don’t understand every nuance of what they are seeing, they always want to come back for more.

Why is this environment so attractive? For me it isn’t just the open air restaurants, the crowd, the music, and such. Instead, it is the realization that the Zócalo in Oaxaca is a public space that is for everyone. There is no requirement that you be young, old, trendy, rich, or poor. Everyone is welcome in that space. And everyone knows it without even thinking about it.

The ways in which public space is used in Oaxaca and elsewhere throughout Mexico cannot be socially engineered. Architects and city planners can facilitate space usage, but they cannot determine it. How public space is used is an expression of one’s culture. It is an important, but often overlooked, part of one’s cultural heritage.

13 thoughts on ““Where are all the people?” — On The Use of Public Space

  1. Wonderful essay. I can’t resist the temptation to think that, although inter-cultural judging is fraught with hazard, Mexicans (and Chinese) are right and we (Americans) are wrong in our cultural attitudes toward use of public spaces.
    I wonder if the author would object to my posting this article, with full credit to him of course, on my FB page. I will await word on that.


  2. This is a great piece. I work with 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and we are working to promote better use of public spaces. We are holding a conference/workshop in September to address this very issue. May I post this on the 1kfriends page?


    1. Hi Deb – Feel free to post it. I would be pleased. There are lots of issues here ranging from culture to urban planning. I may be wrong, but I have the sense that there is a hunger for the sense of community that is evident in those places where a “town square” culture is found. Our new housing developments (at least the ones I have seen), our malls, and our businesses fronted by large parking lots all work against it.


  3. Maybe Milwaukee is a little different, but there are generally people about in Veterans Park along the lakefront near the museum. Not a ton, but I always see runners, bikers and walkers when I’m out there. Some of us know one another and stop to chat in mid workout.


  4. Charles, thanks for an interesting and provocative piece.

    I think Michael puts his finger on one of the issues: more truly urban locations in the U.S. are likelier to offer something like the community space you write about. Think about Central Park or, I suppose, Washington Square, though I haven’t been there for many years. But smaller cities like Madison and Janesville have been suburbanized out of a sense of community and public space, though I think they’re returning in Madison to places like John Nolen and even the Square.

    But there’s also the question how we want to spend our time. And apparently the answer for a lot of us is, not sitting or strolling with our fellow-citizens. Instead, we prefer solitary (and increasingly digital) pursuits or the immediate community of family and our closest friends.


    1. Hi Susan,

      Undoubtedly the urban factor is an issue. When writing the piece, I thought, just like you, about Central Park and Washington Square. I even Googled images of Washington Square to see if my memory of it corresponded to the current scene. I also thought of the images I have of people, mostly men, playing chess in the parks in New York. Those places have the feel of what we are missing here in the Mid-West. Madison and Janesville both have wonderful parks and public city spaces in which such activity might take place, but it doesn’t. I’m guessing that the differences in New York and other urban centers are largely cultural. European and Latin cultures may in general be more oriented toward socializing in public spaces than we in the Mid-West.

      Your idea of suburbanization is undoubtedly correct. We have managed to isolate ourselves from others so that a sense of community is lost. I have read accounts of urban planning projects that encourage increased social interaction in public spaces. So far, I haven’t seen any.

      Thanks for taking the time to respond.


  5. I enjoyed reading your article. (the photos were good also) Your thoughts and those that commented are interesting and thought provoking. I dunno – I like cities, but I always move off the periphery when faced with a crowd and I will admit never going to local parks unless there -is not- some event.


  6. I think thats true and now that you mention it I think it’s why I liked Spain and Italy so much, everyone was always out, eating outside, out walking, out in the park, it was great.


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