SEATTLE — It's fair to say the people of Seattle care about public spaces. To transform an abandoned oil depot into a world-class park, they were obliged to begin by removing (and replacing) 120,000 tons of contaminated soil.

Today, people from all over the world and locals, too, flock to the Olympic Sculpture Park. There, they can contemplate the interplay between spectacular views of Puget Sound and art by the likes of Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly. Or they can take a noontime walk, jog, picnic or pull up an orange chair (provided) and read a book.

No one expects Santa Rosa to replicate a project that cost $85 million, but it would be pleasant to believe that my hometown brings the same enthusiasm for the kinds of improvements that distinguish one city from another.

Big-box stores may be an economic necessity, but they could be anywhere. Parks and playgrounds, plazas and public art, museums and theaters — these are what provide a city with its identity. They are how a city demonstrates a sense of its own worth, how it shows its beating heart.

These amenities also help the local economy by attracting tourists and tourists' dollars, no small consideration in a county dependent on tourism. People on vacation go to sit on the plaza in Healdsburg or listen to a symphony at the Green Music Center. They don't come here to contemplate a shopping center.

You may have noticed Kevin McCallum's story last week: With the release of an environmental impact report, the city of Santa Rosa is renewing its flirtation with a plan that would reunite Old Courthouse Square. Mayor Scott Bartley said he has changed his mind and now likes the idea.

After so long, it's hard to know whether this is the best idea around, but it is an idea.

Just don't schedule your picnic yet. The city has $119,000 available for a project said to cost $14 million.

We can all try to view this latest story without thinking about what came before, but it isn't easy.

When the idea first came along — back when the city was flush — the job could have been done for a fraction of $14million. And this is not the first time the city has made these noises. When it comes to revitalizing the downtown, the city has a long history of false starts.

Meanwhile, the controversy over a sculpture garden in Montgomery Village took another dispiriting turn last week when vandals broke one of the statues.

This is the melodrama in which a member of the city's Art in Public Places Committee called the installation "schlock," and defenders of the sculpture garden described any criticism of it as elitist.

Public art, of course, is supposed to be the opposite of elitist. It's public art, not art hidden away in a billionaire's drawing room. (It's a column for another day, but have you noticed lately how people of all political stripes like to call their opponents elitists?)

The Montgomery Village controversy has been a mess from first to last — from confusion and miscommunication to acrimony and vandalism. Under the aegis of a law designed to promote public art, Santa Rosa is left with a collection of mail-order statues, plus one original work completed by a sculptor in Texas.

Whatever your opinion of the Montgomery Village sculpture garden, this has not a been a series of events likely to promote public art in Santa Rosa, or give encouragement to the local arts community.

If the City Council is serious about public art, it needs to find a better way.

When people respond to stories about Old Courthouse Square or a sculpture garden in Montgomery Village, some say the time and expense aren't worth the trouble. Who cares, after all?

Well, Seattle cares.

And Portland cares.

Portlanders boast that hundreds of new art projects have been installed in the decade since the city began collecting a special tax on new construction. Perhaps no city in the nation is more recognized for its commitment to changes that promote livable neighborhoods — efficient transit, bike lanes, mixed-use development, and yes, public spaces and public art.

Walk through Portland's Pearl District on a summer night and you can see people crowded into shops and sidewalk restaurants or congregating in nearby parks. The place is buzzing — and all of it was built on what used to be a rusted-out industrial area.

Redding, a town smaller than Santa Rosa, also cares.

When people wanted to build a pedestrian bridge across the Sacramento River, someone thought it would be wonderful if the renowned Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, designed it.

Today, people from all over the world come to Redding to see Calatrava's Sundial Bridge.

How did a rural town in California manage to become the site of a world-famous architect's first commission in North America?

Someone picked up the phone and called him.

These are the big and small moments of inspiration — and optimism — that separate great cities from all the others.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>