Editorial: Southside Needs Public Space

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday November 04, 2003

There’s a for sale sign on the MLK-Dwight recycling lot. The BOSS community garden next to the South Berkeley branch library has been evicted (though it’ s found a new home for a while). Plans for Franklin School will turn a playground for families into a parking lot for adults. UC is taking over the Gill Tract garden for a shopping mall; its Oxford agricultural tract is already a building site. And there are several competing schemes for building on the BART lot which is now the Berkeley Flea Market on weekends. 

No individual one of these developments is exactly wrong in itself. But together they add up to a trend toward privatization of shared spaces which will eventually change the urban experience in Berkeley. Each of these sites, and others like them, have until now been used for activities that people do together. When the recycling lot first opened, it was a place for meeting friends and gossiping about community happenings. Curbside pickup is of course more efficient, but a point of human contact has been lost. Neighborhood-only schools gave way to the desirable goal of integrating students, but their playgrounds have remained as places where neighborhood children and parents could get together in an informal setting. The community garden movement, still alive and well in some parts of Berkeley, has been a good way for people to get to know one another by working side by side. The Berkeley Flea Market, though occasionally a thorn in the side of its neighbors, is a free gathering place for musicians and the most entertaining way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Berkeley.  

A few years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam made much of the decline of shared activities in his book Bowling Alone. He blamed easy scapegoats like television, computers, and the change in women’s roles, and he also included suburban living among his villains. But group activities like community gardens which flourished in the sixties and seventies were in part a reaction against urban isolation.  

The current push for infill development, if not properly managed, risks contributing to the privatization of public space. When the requirement that a building project incorporate a certain percentage of open space is translated into isolated rooftop gardens and gated courtyards, residents are encouraged to turn their backs on public life. At the same time that movements like the New Urbanism are preaching the gospel of building suburbs with shared common spaces, comfortable old streetcar suburbs like Berkeley are being pressured to convert their existing shared spaces into blocks of individual apartments, too small for families or voluntary affinity groups.  

A remarkable book captured many of the best lessons learned in the sixties and seventies about the way building and urban design affect people. A Pattern Language, written by Berkeley resident Christopher Alexander and others, is still in print, and should be required reading for members of Berkeley’s Planning Department, Planning Commission, Zoning Adjustment Board and City Council. Chapter 67, “Common Land,” states unequivocally that “without common land no social system can survive.” It further recommends that “common land must be provided separately, and with deliberation, as a social necessity, as vital as the streets.” The authors guess that “the amount of common land needed in a neighborhood is on the order of 25 per cent of the land held privately.” Our various planning decision makers should be made aware that most of Berkeley has a long way to go to meet this standard, and should at least be careful that their decisions don’t make things any worse.  

On Thursday the Zoning Adjustment Board will, perhaps, finally make their much-postponed decision on a massive five-story infill project for Durant Street above Telegraph. The building as proposed violates almost every one of the tenets established by Alexander et al. The first iteration had an unusable ten-foot courtyard at its center—the current version solves that problem by having no courtyard at all. The “studio apartments” are no bigger than dormitory rooms, but the building lacks even the shared dining commons which adds a social dimension to dorm living. 

A Pattern Language contends that “there is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.” This is perhaps open to interpretation. However, the financial data provided for the Durant project proves once again the authors’ contention that such buildings “have no genuine advantages, except in speculative gain for banks and land owners.”  

The developers make the argument that this kind of construction, using every bit of available space right out to the sidewalk and to the property lines, is necessary for the project to “pencil out.” They provided ZAB with a laughable pro forma which purported to prove this point. It was based on data which actually refutes their financial claims if properly analyzed. In any case, the City of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board is not responsible for providing the investors with maximal speculative gain. Their job is to protect the public interest by insisting on good urban design, with a decent provision for common space, in the congested Southside Area. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.