Why we need neighborhood squares. Part 6: Fostering inclusion

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Neighborhood squares tend to promote ethical conduct, attitudes and relations. A place that belongs to the community as a whole cannot be made exclusionary. It must be welcoming and hospitable for all socio-economic, ethnic and age groups and designed to enhance their co-presence and mutual respect. Inequities of access and opportunity for use that prevail for most private indoor space are minimized on the square.

Here, more so than in any other urban public place, all can hear and see each other. Each person’s appearance, their demeanor and their behavior toward others are visible. Depending on one’s point of view or mood, this may impose a burden or provide opportunities. Some actors in the public realm are highly aware that their actions and relationships are open to comparison and scrutiny. But all persons are enriched in their understanding of the “human family” through recognition of the wide range of behaviors, emotions and relationships of which each is capable.

On the square, users encounter others from ethnic or socio-economic groups different from their own. At times strangers challenge our assumptions about how one should look or act, but their co-presence may make us reevaluate our prejudices.  Even when initial reactions are critical, onlookers usually become reconciled to, or even appreciate, the other’s differences. As Barbara Ward wrote: “This is the essence of what Doctor Johnson and James Boswell felt to be the greatest gift of cities – ‘the whole of human life in all its variety’ – the possibility of mixing cultures and experiences and even dimly perceiving, under all the quirks and oddities of human behavior, an underlying shared humanity.”

On a neighborhood square, those who are physically and mentally challenged cannot so easily be ignored as they are in other settings. Like others, they share the basic human wish of every person “to be confirmed as to what he or she is, or can become.” As Martin Buber reminds us, “Actual humanity exists only where this capacity unfolds.” Their interest and pleasure in being on the square is apparent. Accompanied by family or friends they are present in public in multiple role identities, as challenged and as brother, son, or friend.

Persons in wheelchairs and those afflicted by neurological disorders such as palsy are drawn to the square for the same reasons that others are, by the square’s lively ambience and beauty. The square is also appealing because it is safe, non-stressful, and easy to get around in a wheelchair due to the absence of traffic.

In cultures where consensus on valued behaviors exists, one would expect these behaviors to be enhanced in public. For example, behaviors such as paying attention to, talking and playing with children are traditionally valued in Italy and indeed, are displayed by many Italian men in the piazza. If certain behaviors are reinforced by cultural expectation, they are more commonly enacted and become part of the role repertoire observed in the square. These behaviors will also be assumed in other contexts.

However, when dysfunctional attitudes prevail (e.g. distrust of others, discouraging children’s contact with strangers, rudeness, or avoidance of some individuals), the visibility of those behaviors may not benefit civility or community. Here visibility may provide poor examples. Creating squares in societies where, in our view at least, dysfunctional values prevail may even increase problems.

One issue that receives recurrent discussion in relation to urban public places is that of “undesirable” (persons that exhibit troublesome behavior or are alcoholic or drug-addicted) and homeless persons. Here the visibility of such persons worries or intimidates those who feel unable to “live with their presence”, to overcome distrust, to accept that they are part of the human race. But their very existence on the square indicates that they too are attracted by it, and that it is, perhaps, the only place where they are able, and where they have the right, to enjoy the co-presence of their fellow citizens.

Objections are most frequently raised about travelling youth, many of whom may be fleeing economically deprived and abusive homes. They look threatening with their pit bulls and chains, and a small number exhibit belligerent behavior, but the German psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich sees fear of these persons, in part, also as a guilt reaction: guilt about having been complicit in constructing a physical and human environment that is essentially hostile to the poor and to displaced youth.

The neighborhood square nurtures social sustainability by facilitating the continuous social, emotional and cultural development of all its inhabitants -- what Mumford calls “the care and culture of human beings.”  This continual process of socialization and acculturation helps young inhabitants to become citizens. If local inhabitants acknowledge and talk to homeless and troublesome persons both parties find their mutual distrust diminish. More than any other institution, the neighborhood square leads the way in fulfilling this just and ethical mission.

Turn to Part 7: Democratic engagement