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The space available

Many of today’s tech firms, start-ups, and architecture studios are designed with an open plan. In theory, barrier-free offices are supposed to encourage creative discussion and spontaneous collaboration across departmental “silos.” In practice, as anyone working in such spaces can attest, staffers wear earbuds at least some of the time, tuning out their colleagues and working in the cool quarantine of Wilco or Arcade Fire.

This is just one of the many contradictions in the way we approach the increasingly blurred boundaries between the public and private spheres. We fret over institutional surveillance and want assurances that our privacy is protected in every encounter, yet we willingly give over critical financial data and insights into our deepest personal preferences to Amazon or eBay. Social media mavens share wantonly on their personal devices, revealing intimate details once reserved for the confessional, yet they find police cameras at intersections a Big Brother–esque intrusion on their native right to run yellow lights.

Sharing is celebrated if it’s ad hoc and individual, but not when it’s codified into regulation. We love the “collaborative consumption” of the sharing economy, from Zipcar to TaskRabbit, and we feel a warm sense of nobility when we join a crowd-funding campaign. Yet the formal democratic contract—I put in my tax dollar to pay for your child’s school, and you put in your tax dollar to pay for my park or subway—is frayed almost beyond recognition.

The overlap of public and private roles is manifest in the built environment as well. Business Improvement Districts tap commercial tenants to fund private security and maintenance for public streets. Public park improvements increasingly are funded through nonprofit “friends’’ conservancies or novel revenue streams such as underground parking lots. The commercial sector extends its hand to the cash-strapped public realm in exchange for naming rights and corporate banners billowing from every streetlight. Pretty soon the government will be selling space on postage stamps. Your logo here!

Zoning restrictions offer another opportunity to extract public benefits from the private side. Elected officials passed laws ensuring public access to the shoreline, but it took a vigilant nonprofit group—The Boston Harbor Association—to monitor the law’s enforcement and give us the HarborWalk. Probably dozens of new public spaces have been created in exchange for height or density easements granted to developers, but few local residents know where they are. (See Jerold Kayden’s eye-opening article, “Boston POPS.”)

The grand public buildings of the Works Progress Administration—courthouses, post offices, public schools—have been replaced by modular, off-the-shelf designs that are all about function (and economy). If architecture reflects the values of the times, what does this say about our collective respect for the public sector? Is it just a coincidence that many of the midcentury buildings so out of fashion, like Paul Rudolph’s Orange County center in Goshen, New York—or Boston City Hall—are seats of government?

Nowhere is the fusion of public and private touted more than in the plan to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston. Whether you are an Olympics booster or a persuadable skeptic, it’s undeniable that the massive civic undertaking would be the largest exercise in private-public co-operation the region has ever seen. It could be a great boon to upgrading our neglected infrastructure—or just a great boondoggle.

A robust nonprofit sector and a generous business community are both essential to a functioning society, but they are no substitute for the resources that become possible when everyone pays his or her share. Only the federal government, maligned as it is, could have funded the Big Dig. No one has yet paid for affordable housing or a new subway line with a Kickstarter campaign. And to be truly public, our shared civic spaces need to be visible, accessible, welcoming—and free. It’s not a trending point of view in today’s privatized culture, but free is actually something worth paying for. ■