Why public spaces are our best hope for community and democracy


As we head into the home stretch of election season, Americans are more polarized than ever. The ongoing pandemic and deep disagreements on economic and social issues have damaged the well-being and mental health of our country. A recent poll highlighted a disturbing consensus: Americans’ doubts about the future of democracy.

No wonder the trust between people and the government continues to decline. It hurts our ability to work together and solve the pressing problems facing our country.

Several longstanding trends have exacerbated our pandemic woes. We increasingly live our lives in private, residing in neighborhoods where people look like us, have similar incomes and believe the same things. Interactions with people who think differently from us decrease. Growing use of technology is driving fewer human interactions, with millions of us experiencing an unprecedented level of isolation.

Fewer opportunities to interact with people who look and think different from us are undermining our ability to empathize and trust ourselves, and these trends pose a threat to the future of society. democracy. As increasing trust, cooperation and communication between differences requires solutions at all levels of society, we believe civic infrastructure is a key piece of the puzzle.

Civic infrastructure – parks, libraries, community centers and high-quality trails where everyone is welcome – offers people the opportunity to connect across divides of race, income and creed. They are places of gathering, belonging to all. For the most part, we haven’t invested in it for decades.

However, things are changing. At the national level, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Our Common Purpose report called for the creation of a civic infrastructure trust. Local communities across the country are also beginning to bring diverse people into the public space in ways that will help build a vibrant and diverse democracy for generations to come.

Memphis Bridges Divide: Research by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser found that “time spent face-to-face with people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds engenders more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other kind of interaction.” , while recent research from Opportunity Insights has shown that cross-class friendships bring all sorts of individual benefits, including increased economic mobility. Well-designed, managed, and programmed public spaces can foster these connections and shared experiences to achieve “socio-economic blending,” the practice of intentionally fostering interactions between differences in income, race, creed, and geography. . When organizations in Memphis, Tennessee transformed an underutilized park into the River Garden in 2018, they intentionally worked to attract diverse visitors with events, activities, and staff that made the space welcoming and equitable – increasing visitor numbers by 267% and welcoming people over 40. different postal codes. This same model is used to illuminate the city’s current Cossitt Library renovation and Tom Lee Park’s $61 million transformation.

Akron builds trust: In cities, suburbs and small towns, Americans who live near public spaces like parks and libraries are more satisfied with their neighborhood and trust others more. Studies show that well-maintained public spaces (clean, in good repair, and with up-to-date amenities) have the potential to build trust, promote feelings of safety, and encourage community stewardship. In Akron, Ohio’s Summit Lake neighborhood, the co-creation of public spaces has built trust in a previously disengaged community. Local residents worked together to create a gathering space with barbecues and waterfront swings and a nature center with fishing and environmental programs, both of which became permanent. As this work continues, Akron has decided to invest across the city, making a historic investment in parks and recreation, with a focus on building resilience and confidence in long-destroyed neighborhoods. .

Kansas City brings people together: Across the country, communities are working to transform previously vacant land into shared public spaces, leading to increased levels of civic engagement and improved health and safety in historically underinvested communities. Community investment projects have been associated with lower rates of depression and gun violence. In Kansas City, Missouri, community leaders came together to redevelop an abandoned railroad into a community green space and local orchard. This initial investment in the community led to the creation of a nationwide network of civic leaders and community orchards, known as Giving Grove. With 380 gardens in 10 cities, the Giving Grove inspires communities across the country to invest in public spaces and community gardens as a way to build civic power.

For too long, civic infrastructure that builds trust and bonds among Americans has been considered “nice to have” rather than a necessary and vital investment. If we want national unity, we must prioritize places that bring us together and create common ground, such as the civic infrastructure that will support a stronger democratic society.

Hollie Russon Gilman, Ph.D., is Principal Investigator at New America‘s Political Reform Program, Affiliate Fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Age of Inequality.” Bridget Marquis is the director of Reinventing the civic commons Learning Network, which is dedicated to demonstrating that transformative public spaces can connect people of all backgrounds, cultivate trust and create more resilient communities.

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