A look-but-don't-touch mentality mars many US parks, reducing people's ability to enjoy public spaces. Here are two pictures that show how loosening the rules would make our cities better and more beautiful.
Take a look at the photo at the top of this page. It's Chicago's Buckingham Fountain, one of the most famous urban park spaces in America. Unfortunately, besides the impressively ornate fountain itself, the fence is the most prominent feature.
The fountain ledge, where water meets hard land, is the most pleasant part of almost any fountain. It's where humans naturally gravitate toward. But here it's completely off limits, separated from people in the surrounding plaza by a fence and a bare lawn.
Visitors to Buckingham fountain are welcome to look, but not to touch. They can walk by and maybe snap a selfie, but the design of the plaza tells them they had better not stay very long, and certainly mustn't physically interact with anything there. It says loitering is bad, and empty spaces are desirable.
Now compare that with this photo of the Grand Bassin Rond in Paris's famous Tuileries garden.
Visitors to Tuileries are allowed to go to the place they naturally gravitate towards: right up to the water's edge. They can touch, sit, feel, stay. Drag a chair up, or just relax on the ledge itself. It's en entirely different experience than at finger-waving Buckingham Fountain.
It's no wonder there are way more people in the Paris photo than the Chicago one.
OK, OK. I'll backtrack that a little. We have a lot of great parks in the US, with many a welcoming fountain ledge. And more great parks are opening all the time. And there's more to the dearth of people at Buckingham than its fence. And Paris certainly has bad parks of its own. It's unfair to characterize this as an unremitting national problem.
But still, we're awfully stodgy about a lot of the public spaces people are supposed to be enjoying. Washington has one of America's absolute best urban park networks, and yet we still have more Thomas Circles than Dupont Circles. We're blessed with some truly beautiful spaces, which are managed as though the people visiting them are nuisances.
America's cities deserve parks that aren't ashamed to cater to people, that embrace being in a city. We deserve to loiter in our most beautiful places.