Green Square in Tripoli. Tahrir Square in Cairo. The new
Humans are social beings, and most of us understand on some level that coming together across class, ethnic and gender lines provides some of the glue that helps hold civilization together.
So what does it mean that we are letting our public places fall into disrepair?
In some places, weeds were knee-high. In graffiti-splattered parks, benches were as likely to be broken as to offer respite. Along a pedestrian-only street, site of a city improvement project just 10 years ago, crumbling concrete and rusting metal betrayed shoddy workmanship and slipshod maintenance.
We are living with similar challenges in Baltimore and cities across the United States. The political and social conditions creating the problem may differ, but the symptoms look much the same.
Bulgaria is shaking off decades as a Soviet Communist satellite. As Mr. Dikov sees it, the Soviet era taught Bulgarians to wait for the state to do just about anything. Sofia architect Ivo Panteleev, a Johns Hopkins Urban Fellow in 1991-92, explains that under Communism, the city's public spaces were well-maintained but tightly controlled, a rigid orderliness that prevented the informal activities that in free societies enliven (and sometimes make messes of) public spaces. While the fall of Communism introduced the messiness of freedom as well as the ragged inequities of free enterprise, a development boom built luxurious — but private — shopping malls and fancy restaurants. Meanwhile, the parks, sidewalks and streets fell into disrepair.
Is this sounding familiar? Private space masquerading as "public" — until a visitor displeases the security guards? Letting public maintenance wane? The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the United States needs to spend $1.7 trillion on highways and transit systems by 2020. Local and state governments across the country have cut budgets drastically, including for places that serve the larger public good: parks, schools, bridges, streets, even lowly sidewalks. An analysis by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found almost half the states have made deep cuts in pre-kindergarten and/or K-12 spending, and half made major cuts in higher education.
Baltimore, like many recession-battered cities, has struggled. Its public schools are decrepit. A report last year from the
Many of the city's budget cuts (perhaps inevitably) have directly hit public institutions and places. Among a number of cuts in the past three years, the city has shortened library hours and trimmed park maintenance and median mowing. The city horticulture department won't maintain flowerbeds in various city parks this year or routinely prune shrubbery. Potholes aren't being repaired as quickly. Even money for graffiti removal has been reduced, with city officials hoping volunteers can lend a hand.
That hope reflects an American tradition of volunteerism — one that young activists in Sofia hope to nurture in their nation, too. One example is Dobromir Borislavov, 32. When he isn't working one of his three paying jobs, he's unpaid executive director of a nonprofit trying to improve a century-old former botanical garden in central Sofia.
These volunteer efforts, as well as government partnerships with private companies or groups, can succeed in many areas. Public-private partnerships are credited with helping
Places have meaning, for history and our democracy, and so do decisions. In a free society, individuals sometimes decide to throw trash on the sidewalk or paint graffiti on a park monument. Government decisions also convey meaning, whether in a small Balkan country or the world's first great democracy. And these days, with too many of our public places and institutions falling into disrepair, what those government decisions say about our country's values may not be all that flattering.