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Have Yourself a Merry City Christmas

A collection of holiday photos to remind us why we need our public spaces 

Brian Colson/Creative Commons

The winter holidays remind me of how special public spaces can be, how they make cities, and us, more alive.

It is impossible to have a great community without great public spaces - appealing and accommodating streets, sidewalks, parks, storefronts, plazas, accessible cafes, and so on. These are the essence of what many city planners and thinkers call "the public realm," to contrast with the realm of privately owned and secured homes, yards and private office buildings. People love communities from Paris to Santa Monica precisely because their public spaces are so enticing.  

In many parts of the world, more emphasis is placed on the quality of the public realm than here in the U.S., with the result that their private enclaves needn't be so lavish to provide their needs and nourishment. A moderately sized apartment or townhome might suffice just fine, for example, if you have a world-class park and library at your door; the kitchen and dining room can be modestly sized if the cafes within an easy walk are plentiful, reasonably priced, relaxing and nourishing.

In America, we have been doing much the opposite in recent decades. Once, we used public funds to build great parks, libraries, boulevards and transportation systems - public assets every one. But support for public spending dried up; isolated pods of poorly connected new subdivisions put very little within walking distance; and Americans started pouring our resources - sometimes more than we had, as the housing market collapse illustrates - into our outsized private realm of gates, fenced-in yards, and sealed houses, with outdoor life largely relegated to the rear, the least public of our outdoor spaces.

Washington, DC downtown holiday market (by: Adam Fagen, creative commons license)  

Washington, DC (Adam Fagen/Creative Commons)

Christmas market, Stuttgart, Germany (by: BuzzWolf, public domain)
holidays at the Farmers' Market, The Grove, Los Angeles CA (by: Loren Javier, public domain)  

 Left: Los Angeles (Loren Javier/Public Domain) Right: Stuttgart (BuzzWolf/Public Domain)

We do need some private places of our own - at least I do - but we love great public spaces where they exist. They are where "community" happens. I have been reminded over the last couple of weeks by several strolls through DC's highly animated downtown holiday market how much the winter holidays bring out in us a shared spirit, frequently experienced on sidewalks and plazas, whether they be iconic such as the brightly lit trees in Rockefeller Center and at the White House, or modest such as a handmade display on the lawn of a small town's place of worship. The best ones really come alive at this time of year, and this post is devoted to some great ones that I found on the web.

holiday market, Colmar, Alsace, FR (by: Remi Stosskopf, public domain)

Colmar, Alsace, France (Remi Stosskopf/Public Domain)

Christkindle Market, Chicago (by: Christine Zenino, creative commons license)
Christmas market, Prague (by: Hynek Moravec, creative commons license)  

Left: Prague (Hynek Moravec/Creative Commons) Right: Chicago (Christine Zenino/Creative Commons)

Rostock, Germany (by: Carsten Pescht, creative commons license)

Rostock, Germany (Carsten Pescht/Creative Commons)

market in Osaka, Japan between Christmas and New Year's (by: Janne Moren, creative commons license)
Pachuca, Mexico market during holiday season (by: Mircea Turcan, creative commons license)     

Left: Pachuca, Mexico (Mircea Turcan/Creative Commons) Right: Osaka, Japan (Janne Moren/Creative Commons)

holiday season @ Covent Garden, London (by: Edyta.Materka, creative commons license)

London (Edyta.Materka/Creative Commons)

South Kensington, London (by: Andrew West, creative commons license)
St Ann's Square, Manchester, UK (by: Nigel Chadwick, creative commons license)  

Left: Manchester, UK (Nigel Chadwick/Creative Commons) Right: London (Andrew West/Creative Commons)

 This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog. 


About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.