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Celebrating (and championing) public spaces at the 57th IMCL conference in June

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

As we emerge from the pandemic, we'll assess its lessons -- and we'll share new tools and strategies for creating more livable, sociable and equitable public spaces, within more successful, resilient, sustainable cities and towns

Carmel, Indiana's Arts and Design District, a remarkable transformation of a car-dependent suburb into a thriving network of public spaces, including streets and squares.

"Without public space," former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos likes to say, "you really don't have a city at all." It's in public spaces that we connect to one another and to our resources, that we encounter new people and new ideas, and that we share a common realm and build a common civic identity. As new research is showing, robust networks of public space are critical for city success -- for fostering economic creativity, social contact, opportunity and human development, and for sustaining healthy, low-resource levels of activity.

And as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg has noted, healthy public space networks are critical for urban resilience -- and might even be a matter of life and death. In his classic research on the 1995 Chicago heat wave, Klinenberg found that public spaces, and their adjoining "third places," were critical factors in providing what he called the "social infrastructure" that's needed for social support and urban resilience. "The key difference between neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham [the Chicago neighborhood where many more survived] and others that are demographically similar turned out to be the sidewalks, stores, restaurants, and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors," he wrote.

As we emerge from the pandemic and assess its lessons, especially for public space, we're delighted to welcome to the IMCL conference some of the foremost scholars and institutional leaders on public space. Among them is Setha Low, Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology, and Director of the Public Space Research Group at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Professor Low, former President of the American Anthropological Association, has written several seminal books on public space, including On The Plaza and Spatializing Culture.

Professor Low is currently working on a book titled Why Public Space Matters. "Public space provides the potential for civic life," she says. "But we are in fact losing our public spaces." A combination of forces is causing this alarming decline, she says, many of them starkly revealed by the pandemic. Yet as we have experienced isolation from public spaces during the pandemic, we have come to appreciate how important they are to us all on a personal and emotional level. Although digital media have been enormously helpful as ways of connecting during this time -- at least for those with access to features like Zoom and Skype -- many people are surely recognizing that these technologies can never fully replace the fundamental role of public spaces in cities.

Professor David Brain, a sociologist who will present work on civic innovations in public involvement processes at the conference, probably spoke for many when he said, "I’m excited about attending the conference -- I’ve had about enough of meetings online!"

Especially now, there is a need to come together, rub elbows and share lessons and tools for improving public spaces, and for assure an equitable civic and public realm for all. "There are people all over the world really committed to bring just, healthy, democratic public space -- and yet, we're all working separately," says Professor Low. "That's one of the reasons these meetings are so important."

Professor Low is also currently part of a research project to assemble research literature on public space into a database for use by mayors, planners and other actors. "I'm working on this great database project in which we're looking at all kinds of research from all the different disciplines, and what it can tell us about how to make public space better for everyone."

Professor Low will discuss the database project at the IMCL conference, along with colleagues Vikas Mehta, Fruth/Gemini Chair of Urban and Environmental Design at the University of Cincinnati, and David Brain, the Professor of Sociology from New College Florida. They will be joined by "doers" including mayors, senior planners, developers, design practitioners, NGO heads, and others, for a lively exchange of knowledge into action --- and action into knowledge. Thats a key aim of the IMCL conferences.

The focus on public space also represents a "paradigm shift" according to Joan Clos, the former Barcelona Mayor who later served as Secretary-General of the 2016 Habitat III global conference. Public space figured prominently in that conference and its outcome document, the "New Urban Agenda" -- a global guideline for creating more successful and livable cities and towns, with more lively and beautiful public spaces. (That was thanks in large part to contributions from Professor Low and other IMCL participants.) That document was later adopted by acclamation by all 193 countries of the United Nations -- suggesting that perhaps Clos was right, that we are on the verge of a new paradigm in thinking about cities, and the central role of their public spaces.

That idea is certainly music to the ears of Peter Elmlund, board member of the IMCL, and Director of Urban/ City Research for the Ax:son Johnson Foundation of Stockholm. "We're shifting our attention from objects to places," he likes to say. His foundation has been supporting the database project, motivated by a belief that public space needs to be better understood across disciplines and sectors. "What is public space, and what do we know about public life in public space?" he wants to know. "What is good density, for the purpose we are studying?"

"And for me also the size of things, you know, has been very important: the sizes of squares, and the widths of streets and all that," he says. In this way of looking at things, buildings are most important because their edges define the public spaces. ""Outdoor rooms, when outside is almost like inside, you know. In Venice, the Piazza San Marco - Napoleon called it 'the finest living room in Europe.'" These outdoor spaces form a critical "place network" that connects the indoor spaces, and that provides the crucial human connections that ultimately generate all the vitality that cities give us.

Cars, digital technologies, private campuses -- they can supplement, but never replace, these critical urban "place networks." We must not let them displace the fundamental connective system of public spaces, and all that they give us. And as we seek a more sustainable and more livable generation of cities and towns, it's critical that we lessen our dependence on these high-resource technologies, and re-focus on the "natural urbanism" that public spaces provide, along with their many health benefits.

At the IMCL conference in Carmel, we'll not only study public space, its features, and the latest tools and strategies for improving it -- we'll also celebrate it, and enjoy the lively public spaces that are at the core of Carmel's success story. Mayor Jim Brainard and his expert staff will certainly share their successes and lessons learned, but will also ensure that attendees have a wonderful time. "We'll make sure you get out and about to explore all that Carmel and Central Indiana have to offer. We know that you will find the blend of our hospitality and culture a welcome surprise," he says.

Mayor Jim Brainard

Carmel and Central Indiana offer many fascinating opportunities to study and experience public spaces, old and new. Nearby Indianapolis features a rich urban history and wonderful urban spaces, including many historic urban neighborhoods. Attendees might choose to arrive via Amtrak's Cardinal Line at Indianapolis' historic train station, Union Station, built in 1888. The surrounding downtown neighborhood is also fascinating.

Among the many fascinating and beautiful cities and towns in and around Central Indiana: (L-R) Over-the-Rhine Neighborhood of Cincinnati; aerial view of Madison, Indiana; streetcars and public spaces in Over-the-Rhine; Indianapolis' grand Union Station.

An hour south is the remarkable town of Columbus, Indiana, site of an impressive collection of 20th Century art and architecture. The spectacular historic towns of French Lick and West Baden are also just over two hours to the south. South Bend and Notre Dame University are also two hours to the north. Madison, Indiana, like many historic towns in the surrounding area, offers wonderful buildings and public spaces -- about two hours south of Carmel, located along the Ohio River. Cincinnati is also two hours southeast, and offers many wonderful neighborhoods, buildings and public spaces.

More of the places to see and enjoy in the Central Indiana region. (L-R) the main street through French Lick and West Baden; a sculpture in front of an I.M. Pei building in Columbus, Indiana; the town of Anderson, Indiana, like many towns in the area, with a beautiful main street; and the amazing West Baden Springs Hotel, a National Historic Landmark built in 1902, and until 1913 the largest dome in the world.

Farther afield are Chicago (three hours by car, a little longer by train, or accessible with a short commuter flight), Detroit (four hours by car, or train or commuter flight), or other fascinating cities including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Louisville and St. Louis. International travelers may want to lay over in New York or Washington, D.C.

For travel and tourism information in the Carmel area, check out the Visit Hamilton County website, or the page dedicated for information about the City of Carmel, especially for local visitor information.

After over a year of too much isolation, this June's IMCL conference offers a wonderful opportunity to get out and explore the best that America's cities and towns have to offer. We hope you'll join us for a wonderful time in Carmel and central Indiana! For more information visit

Some of the public spaces of Carmel, including (L-R) the Arts and Design District; The Farmers' Market at the Palladium Concert Hall, our venue; and the Monon Greenway, a former railroad right of way that is now a hike and bike trail running all the way to Westfield, Indiana to the north, and downtown Indianapolis to the south.

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