The Urban Common Spaces That Show Us We Belong to Something Larger

An American friend living in Germany told me a story about when she first arrived. She and her German boyfriend were out walking when she heard a noise that got louder as they approached the town’s main square. Puzzled, she asked her partner about the unfamiliar sound.

“That’s the sound of people talking to each other,” he told her.

People outside, not drowned out by the noise of cars or amplified music. Imagine!

On my recent trip to Europe, where I was speaking about my new book, The Revolution Where You Live, I, too, found people everywhere outside, enjoying common spaces.

Jane Jacobs, the author and activist who revolutionized urban planning, wrote often about the outdoor spaces where people encounter each other. Even in large, gritty cities such as New York and Berlin, these urban commons connect us to each other and to the land, water, plants, and animal life of our home. We experience what it means to belong to something larger, to be welcome simply because we are alive.

But common spaces have to be protected, especially as powerful private interests seek to increase private wealth.

In BerIin, I visited Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, author of several books on urban gardening who fought for decades for garden space. We walked together to her favorite outdoor market, where we admired the massive displays of tulips and sampled chocolates made by a family-run business. She spoke to friends, asked farmers about their early spring greens, and recommended a coffee truck run by a Turkish family whose business gave these immigrants a foothold in the larger community. Going to market was as much about enjoying the company and savoring the tastes, smells, stories, and sights as it was about shopping for dinner.

We also visited a large park near to Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, a part of the center city once bisected by the Berlin Wall. The park land had been owned by the East German railway, but after the wall came down, city planners pressed for a freeway through this rare…

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