A few months ago, Benjamin Barber, the author of Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed, wrote a great piece in The Nation responding to the announcement that New York City would close off vehicular traffic around a few blocks of Times Square.
Titled "The Art of Public Space," Barber rightly insists in this essay that public space is not natural, but has to be "made." (And it can be made from the top down or the bottom up, but always with the public, not profits, in mind.) "There is," he writes about top down kinds of places, "an 'art of public space,' which requires more than no-car signs, traffic cones, concrete barriers, tables and chairs. Happily, New York possesses an urban resource ideally suited to creating public space: artists."
Thinking of the Ramblas in Barcelona and Millennium Park in Chicago, Barber wants to turn those New York pedestrian blocks into artistic spaces - places where artists are commissioned to do work that will generate public discussion or raise awareness of civic issues.
In the end, Barber understands that public space must produce conversations. This is key. Again, these gathering spots need to be places not just for escape and respite, but places of engagement and discussion. Such places, though, need triggers - something to start the talk. Art has always fit this role. We need this sort of public investment in places and in art now more than ever. As the health care debate has painfully revealed, as if we didn't already know this, what our democracy suffers from the most is not the corrupting influence of money but from the diminished capacity for meaningful discussion.