Plazas, Piazze, Plätze, Places
Observations on a different attitude toward productivity, leisure, and public space
Americans Must Be Doing Something
In the US, “would you like to go on a walk?” is usually an invitation to exercise. We go on walks as part of our attempts to achieve the fitness mantra of the recommended daily 10,000 steps. A walk might be a social activity, but it’s usually conducted in comfortable or athletic attire.
On a walk through a major urban park on the weekend, one is likely to encounter any number of people outside, and the vast majority of them will be exercising. In Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, for example, one is likely to find people running, walking (vigorously), bicycling, skateboarding, roller-blading, and playing a variety of sports: soccer, volley, tennis, football, whiffle ball, ultimate frisbee, and many more.
The people one encounters who aren’t explicitly there for purposes of exercise inevitably seem to be attendees at some sort of planned event. There are reservable pavilions for birthday parties, quinceañeras, graduation parties, July Fourth or Memorial Day barbecues, and other similar kind of planned events. Someone has arranged for the provision of food and drink, sent invitations, perhaps submitted some sort of form to reserve a pavilion, or at the very least told people when to show up and created a Google doc where people can share with other attendees what they plan to bring.
Europe seems to be the complete opposite. Last week, Gelsey and I walked the 2.5-mile length of Prater Park in Vienna. It contains one boulevard that runs the full length lined with Chestnut trees. It contains a variety of sports venues: tennis, soccer, volley, and, surprisingly, baseball and softball. And while we wore our athletic wear to go for a walk through the park, we encountered plenty of people who were just there for a stroll.
Yes, of course, there were some middle-aged people there with their hiking poles, and there were a few men going for a run through the park (at least one of whom was American). And there were some people utilizing the sports venues. But many more people were just there hanging out – laying in the sun, pushing a stroller talking to a friend, sitting on a park bench.
The Stadt Park, which is more centrally located, offered an even better example of this.
American Commitment to Productivity
Part of the explanation for this, I would venture, is Americans’ distinctive attitude toward productivity. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this tendency on the journey that produced Democracy in America back in the early 19th century. This commitment to productivity results in phenomena like the expectation that one should stay late at work even if one doesn’t have work to do. Or that if one is to enjoy the outdoors one ought to do so while doing something “useful,” like burning calories.
We are a people who have so ingrained the notion that productivity is important that we want to be recognized by others for how productive we are in our leisure time – by, say, learning a foreign language, writing a blog, reading works of history, accomplishing a gardening or landscaping or home improvement project, etc.
This was a hallmark of the early days of the pandemic. You can’t go out anywhere? No problem – just pick a self-improvement project to work on in your newfound free time. Oh, and be sure to document it on social media. Did you learn how to bake bread? Did you grow fancy indoor plants? Did you learn to paint or knit or bead or weave? If not, really, what were you doing?
This relentless focus on productivity may not be uniquely American. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism suggests the protestant belief in the connection between good works salvation helped develop a capitalist economy in that it provided an ideological justification for profit-seeking ends. This attitude remains pervasive even in a rapidly secularizing culture. While Northern Europe and the United States share in this protestant heritage, the belief in the importance of productivity seems to have an even stronger hold in the US than in the old world.
The US Doesn’t Have Sufficient Public Spaces
For as much as Americans may have an unhealthy attitude about the nature of productivity, the lack of time spent doing nothing in public is equally the result of lack of space designed for such a purpose.
I’m sure one of the many Washington residents who receives this will produce additional examples, but in 8 years of living in DC, I can only produce a small handful of ostensibly non-park spaces in the areas I frequented where people regularly congregate outside. Dupont Circle (which, with a fountain, some bushes, and a bit of grass, actually is almost a park space); the Mall (which, really, is a park space), Logan Circle (which shares many of the same elements as Dupont Circle), and a group of Hispanic men who regularly hang out on the sidewalk along Mt. Pleasant Boulevard.
There is no public place I can think of in Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Van Ness, or Mt. Pleasant that was designed for and conducive to simply being outside, and the only such place in Adams Morgan (the plaza at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road) is the subject of an ongoing political fight over its conversion into condos (more on that below).
Plazas, Piazze, Plätze, Places
In contrast to the US, Europe also has an abundance of public areas where people regularly gather. It’s notable that there is not even a universally understood English version of the Spanish ‘plaza’, Italian ‘piazza’, French ‘place’, and German ‘platz’. ‘Place,’ which is an English word, would hardly be understood as ‘plaza’ absent significant context and explanation. ‘Square’ is rendered only semi-accurate by the constraints of its precise geometric derivation (hence the use of ‘circle’ in DC).
The plätze (plural of platz) in Vienna, no different to the plazas in Spain I know well from my time in Málaga, or, I am sure, the piazze we are soon to enjoy in Italy, are hubs of urban life. They are among the most conspicuous differences from American life and culture, for they are both lined with cafes, yet still contain ample space for those simply going for a non-calorie-burning-focused walk.
In the small platz from which this post is being written, the cafes have been largely full on this sunny, 70-degree day, but not so full that people struggled to find room. But there are still many benches, which have been inhabited by people young and old, foreign and native, eating and drinking or just sitting and talking. There are old friends running into each other and strangers helping each other find their way.
The platz is symbolic of the way Europeans are comfortable doing nothing in public. We have been sitting in this café, unrushed, for two hours. There is no hurry, no eagerness to turn the table over, simply an acceptance that sometimes people to simply sit in the platz, sipping a wine or a spritz (or tea and coffee in our case), and enjoying the slow pace of life and the beautiful weather.
Americans Want Plazas
The American public is desperate for such spaces. That small plaza I mentioned before at the top of Adams Morgan in DC… it’s a terrible excuse for public space. There are no plants. It’s dirty. It’s covered in graffiti. It’s in a narrow wedge of a busy intersection. It has virtually no redeeming features except for the fact that it is public space in a spot where people want to gather. And so it is always busy.
The issue, though, is that the space isn’t actually public. It’s owned by Truist (formerly SunTrust), and they constructed this small plaza outside one of their branches, which is right there. Space in DC is at a premium, and they have been interested in selling the space to a developer. The local community has rallied in opposition to this proposed development, but under the most unusual of guises, essentially advocating that the plaza must stay because it is a home for a few people who have no other.
I think DC and the US in general ought to be doing a lot more to help the homeless. Direct cash transfers, increased social workers to do case management, etc. But, “you can’t develop this plaza because a few homeless people live here,” is not an argument that will have broad appeal. And while it’s enticing for non-lefties to chalk the poor quality of this argument up to the radical lefties and their misguided priorities, I think a better explanation is that people in the US are unfamiliar with the concept of public space or the idea that more public space designed for leisure is an achievable political objective.
A much better argument for not developing the plaza is that Adams Morgan needs more public space not less. There are a lot of bars and restaurants where one can sit outside in the neighborhood, but you will be rushed, and there aren’t good places to sit nearby. If you finish your drink, you don’t want another, and you want a spot to finish your conversation, you’d have to walk several blocks to find a spot to sit and talk in public. There are two small parks a few blocks away and there’s a school (with a playground, tennis court, and soccer field) on the same stretch of road, but there’s no plaza, except for the one apparently owned by Truist.
Dupont Circle further buttresses claims that demand for public space is high. Dupont Circle is at the heart of local commercial and residential establishments. And it has a lot of benches. That’s pretty much all it has going for it. The fountain hasn’t worked for years. Sitting there in the evening requires overcoming the constant sound of rats rustling in the bushes behind you. And there are not nice flowers or gardens or sculpted-shrubberies, or really anything to give it some aesthetic beauty. It’s space with benches near where people would otherwise be.
And yet, if the weather is anything other than truly awful, Dupont Circle is busy. People love it. It’s the spot to be on a nice weekend day. And it’s the closest approximation in DC to the impromptu “be with others doing nothing outside” culture of Europe. In short, even bad public space helps Americans escape the straight-jacket of productivity-focused leisure time.
One final point about this concept of space-to-do-nothing-in being desirable. Dog owners are intimately familiar with this because the urban dog park is such a space. People go with their dogs. Their dogs do things, and the people socialize amicably but usually not closely. Dog owners sometimes know the names of other dog owners, though more often the names of the other dogs. These spaces have to be located in neighborhoods where people live because people don’t want to take their dogs too far on a walk to the park where their dogs are supposed to run around. I’ve never known a dog owner who didn’t enjoy the being-in-public-doing-nothing-together aspect of dog parks. It seems these casual interactions are often part of what makes people want to get a dog in the first place. American cities have seemingly made the spaces people want… but for dogs. We need dog parks… but for humans!
Your leisure time is your time. You should do what you like with it. If that means playing video games or sitting in a park reading a trashy novel or taking a nap or going for a stroll with a friend without the goal of exercise or reaching any particular destination, you should do that. But we must also adapt current American urban infrastructure to facilitate being in public.
As Americans seek to redesign cities, much of the emphasis has been on sustainability. The mechanisms for this are usually improving public transport, building better bicycle infrastructure, and reducing car traffic. While those are instruments for reducing carbon emissions, they will only modestly improve the livability and enjoyment we get from urban areas. To have flourishing urban areas, we will need a renewed commitment to public space as well.
We don’t need to build a 21st century Plaza Mayor (Madrid) or Grand Place (Brussels) or Piazza del Popolo (Rome). The many hundreds of years old buildings that ring these great European plazas are irreplicable. But we should convert some private space in highly-trafficked mixed-used areas to public space, space where people can be comfortable just being about, where they will naturally encounter others doing as they are, simply enjoying the time outdoors in the company of their fellow humans.
 Although reading an observation of ‘productivity’ into Tocqueville is an anachronism, he gets at something like it in his focus on “those restless cravings, that busy-mindedness, and love of self, which are constantly urging the American into active life, and bringing him into contact with his fellow-citizens.” He also thought that democracy itself compelled this sort of activity: “Democracy does not confer the most skillful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skillful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits.”
 The average US worker works 1,767 hours per year. This is significantly more than in other European countries like Sweden (1,424), the Netherlands (1,399), or Germany (1,332) – via the OECD.
 Yes, I am aware of Kalorama Park, which, as the name suggests is in Kalorama.
 Innate researcher that I am, I did go to the source material here, and the “petition” to “defend the public easement” on this space actually makes no note of its status as home for several unhoused persons. It’s simply about the right of the public to use this space. In the at least 5 years this fight as been going on, I had only heard about it in relation to the protection of the unhoused persons. For Gelsey, it was the same. I’m not sure we’ll know why that’s where the attention went, but it did. The latest piece on the website devoted to protecting the plaza is about the death of one of the unhoused persons who used to inhabit the plaza. DCist has a good write-up of the latest on the plaza’s status here.
Interesting! It reminds me of reading some interesting stuff about taking blighted former housing in detroit and knocking it down to make green spaces — but that was all, like, little gardens for food and urban biodiversity. Not making a central plaza….. it seems like if the plaza isn’t already there, it’s kind of hard to retrofit in an urban setting where potential price per square foot is high (and housing stock low, as I think is the case in general in the US?)
I have so many thoughts on this great piece!
1. May I suggest another contributing factor to the higher % of Europeans (or maybe better-said: non-Americans) being outside in parks: there is so little multi-generational housing in the US, that people kind of like being at home. Unlike in some countries where people are piled on top of their parents or grannies or grandkids and can't wait to get the hell out of there for some space, Americans tend to be in more nuclear living arrangements, so there's less pent-up demand to be less pent-up.
2. The Truist Plaza situation is an endless source of voyeuristic entertainment for those of us who regularly read the Adams Morgan listserv ... and a source of eye-rolling for those of us who agree that its stasis as a barren, shitty DMZ because "if I can't win then nobody can" is bullshit.
2a. PEDANTIC NOTE ALERT: Kalorama Park is in "Kalorama Triangle" which IS *technically* part of Adams Morgan (KT is bounded by Calvert to the north, Connecticut/RCP to the west, and Columbia to the east) ... and it's definitely part of the AdMo scene, being just a block away from Mintwood Place, the Amsterdam Falafel joint on 18th etc.. For what it's worth, the fancy part of Kalorama which is west of Connecticut Ave is referred to as "Kalorama Sheridan" and they have a park called Mitchell Park but that's definitely not convenient.
3. Re the title, we saw comedian Mike Birbiglia last night and he had an apt laugh line: "I love pizza. I mean, I love it so much that I get excited when I see the word 'plaza.'"