Above: Paraschiv surveys Salem residents about their favorite public spaces for her Salem Public Space Project at the local Farmers’ Market.
When did you develop a passion for public spaces?
I went to M.I.T. with a desire to engage social issues through architecture. Initially I thought I would study affordable housing, but I soon found a different path.
One of my early assignments at M.I.T. was a study on Bucharest, where I was born. For the first time I began to critically think about my own experiences in relation to different urban conditions. Although I moved to Los Angeles when I was 7 years old, I returned to Bucharest every summer throughout my childhood. As I did this study, I became increasingly interested in why these two cities were so different.
In Romania, I walked to school by myself in first grade, and in the summers I could run loose, even until 11 p.m. But in LA, my grandmother still walked me to school in fourth grade. My parents were so afraid of the dangers in LA, they felt as though anything could happen to me if I were out alone. So these were two completely different ideas of public space and safety in my life.
I began to think, “Wait a minute. Why can’t people be out and about more in LA?” So in the end, I did my thesis on farmers markets there. My research showed that a particular type of vibrant public space exists in LA that counters the general car-centric perception of the city.
One of the questions I continue to ask myself is “What would make people want to be in this space more?” I really think it has to do with knowing the space. Once you get to know people, you feel closer to them. Once you get to know a space better, you feel closer to it.
And I want people to feel a sense of ownership over their cities beyond their property lines. Public space is right outside your doorstep, and it just seems a waste to me not to use it.
Most of your posts on CoLab Radio detail your work with children. Why is this important to you?
I’d work with anyone on public space projects. In fact, while in Barcelona, my team wanted input from adults, but the kids were simply more engaged. The first time I thought about children and public space was in Anne Sprin’s class, “Urban Nature.”
She talked about her project with middle school students in West Philadelphia. Anne’s project stood out to me because of the kids. They started to feel better about themselves once they knew more about their neighborhood.
Something like urban renewal happened because people were allowed to call those homes “slums” even though they were good homes and neighborhoods for many people. When I was working with the kids in Roxbury, one boy said to his classmate, “Oh, so do you live in those projects over there?” And her reaction was instant: “I don’t live in the projects!”
What is the relationship between an individual and the public space near his or her home?
I believe that the image you have in your head of where you come from is crucial. In elementary school, few of my friends in LA knew where Romania was on a map. In my mind, as a child, I thought, “I’m from somewhere so insignificant that no one even knows where this place is.”
Since Romania sounds like Armenia, and there is a large Armenian population in LA, I used to tell people I was Armenian. Maybe the reason I identified so much with Anne’s project in West Philadelphia was because of my own experience.
As much as people move around these days, they still identify with a home and a place. Even if you end up having multiple homes as you go through life, you don’t switch one for another. You just keep gaining homes. And the identity of those homes is significant to a larger identity of who you are.