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New Forms of Urban Public Space and the Publics that They Serve

John King, San Francisco Chronicle, Mellon Fellow 2017–2018, Spring

As the longtime architecture critic for a daily newspaper, my fellowship was an opportunity to study a topic that, though not obviously academic, is of real importance: new forms of public space in American cities and the publics they serve. After surveying books and monographs from the past sixty years that spell out how to design successful urban spaces—standards that inevitably change from decade to decade—I explored the intellectual and historical contexts that frame today’s debate over public access and private management, as well as what might be considered acceptable conduct in plazas or parks. It’s a cross-disciplinary debate with a lineage that stretches to the early days of Central Park, and Dumbarton Oaks’ holdings show this in varied and sometimes surprising ways. Equally important, the supplemental research travel funding offered as part of the Mellon program allowed me to travel to recently completed, ambitiously curated spaces in Dallas and North Carolina—an opportunity to see how real people respond to the types of spaces that too often are critiqued in the abstract.