5 emerging practices for socioeconomic mixing

River Garden is a welcoming place for all. Image credit: Memphis River Parks Partnership.

For decades, research has shown that Americans are increasingly polarized, segregated and isolated from one another. Economic inequality is increasing. At the same time, communities have reduced investment in the parks, libraries and trails the very social infrastructure that could bring people of different backgrounds together. The result is entire communities and neighborhoods where people are less likely to encounter people of different economic, social and racial backgrounds — what we call “socioeconomic mixing.”

For Reimagining the Civic Commons, socioeconomic mixing is the act of bringing together people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and incomes into public places. It’s one of the four core goals for our work, because we fundamentally believe shared civic assets should be places where everyone belongs and where different people can share experiences. We believe that by boldly welcoming people of all incomes and backgrounds into public places that encourage human interaction with others, we can rebuild trust within communities — and maybe even rebuild our democracy.

Here are five emerging practices from our work in five cities across the country that are trying to foster more socioeconomic mixing. These practices are helpful for all cities seeking to reverse social isolation and economic segregation and to rebuild public trust through our civic commons.

Reimagining the Civic Commons metrics reports include data on socioeconomic mixing.

Intention and measurement

While some public places seem to naturally bring together people of diverse backgrounds, given current residential segregation patterns in U.S. cities, achieving this ambition often takes real work. Embedding socioeconomic mixing as a key goal of any investment in civic assets makes fostering diversity central. And regularly gathering helpful data on how a public asset is performing in terms of socioeconomic mixing — such as the income, racial and ethnic diversity of site visitors, or the extent of the opportunity for meeting new people in a particular place means the performance of public spaces are being measured with this intention in mind.

A focus on quality

The work spearheaded by Theaster Gates and the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood reminds us that quality in the civic commons matters. In Gates’ words, “Beauty is a basic service,” and by holding a high standard for design and programming of public places, reimagined community assets have a greater potential to attract a mix of visitors from different backgrounds. For instance, Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank draws visitors from the neighborhood nearby, from the rest of the city and from other cities, who come to experience groundbreaking exhibitions, film screenings, dance parties and other cultural-based programming.

A program on the ICONIC Black Panther exhibition drew a diverse crowd to the Stony Island Arts Bank. Image credit: Matt Mateiescu.

Management matters

Memphis River Parks Partnership is working with philanthropy and the public sector to transform six miles along the Mississippi River’s banks to create world-class public places. The team there is reconsidering the role and duties of its onsite maintenance staff, expanding their job duties and roles from simply maintaining parks to include helping create a sense of welcome. This recasting of staff roles is part of Memphis River Parks Partnerships’ ambition to achieve socioeconomic mixing through quality experiences for all.

The opening of the River Garden is changing the perception and expectations of public spaces in Memphis. Image credit: Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Last fall, the Partnership opened the River Garden in a previously abandoned park. With the River Garden, the design, but perhaps even more importantly, the management of the public park has shifted to prioritize a sense of welcome. Previous park maintenance staff members have transitioned into “River Garden Rangers,” with new job descriptions that they are co-creating. These job descriptions include a set of norms that describe “the way we do business here,” and incorporate everything from greeting visitors, making eye contact with everyone to ensuring the garden is trash- and weed-free at all times. Rangers are easily and immediately identifiable to visitors, and understand that the park experience does not end at the park boundaries but extends into adjacent streets and areas that should also be inviting. Rangers are expected to be knowledgeable about activities in and around downtown Memphis and to understand the latest plans for the transformation of the riverfront, making them ready to answer any and all questions from guests.

Rangers are also observing and collecting data about the use of the park on a regular basis, helping the Memphis River Parks Partnership — and the rest of the city — understand how socioeconomic mixing goals are being reached. Redeploying staff in this value-added way is changing the perception and expectations of public spaces in Memphis, proved by the fact that the team regularly receives fan mail from visitors who appreciate the new sense of welcome.

A young visitor enjoys s’mores by the fire pit, a welcoming element at the River Garden. Image credit: Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Variety of offerings all in one place

There are various ways to support socioeconomic mixing, but perhaps none as compelling as Philadelphia’s award-winning Reading Terminal Market. One of America’s largest and oldest public markets, Reading Terminal Market mixes produce sellers and groceries set up shoulder to shoulder alongside Amish baked goods, a juice bar, a Latino kitchen and much more. While Reading Terminal Market naturally attracts locals and out-of-town visitors, it holds that diversity of vendors and customers are critical to its future success. With programming like Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers, a dinner series that leverages the common denominator of food to connect people from different Philadelphia communities, and operating practices like its “day stall merchant option” that lets local entrepreneurs to sell small batch products for just $50 per day, it continues to be a regional attraction that prioritizes not just the quantity of visitors, but the diversity of visitors. It even holds up fostering interaction across diversity in its mission statement.

Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers at Reading Terminal Market. Image credit: Alex Styer.

Creating connections across neighborhoods

Our parks and libraries often focus solely on attracting people from one neighborhood, but our current levels of economic and social segregation make it difficult to achieve true socioeconomic mixing with this operating model. To counter this, the Akron Civic Commons team approached its work by creating a seamless public realm across three different neighborhoods, all of which are connected by the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail. In Akron, this includes building and highlighting the geographic and physical connections between places, and perhaps even more importantly, promoting relationships that span these neighborhoods. The instinct to consider the opportunity of connecting people across geographies means that civic assets can offer a greater potential for socioeconomic mixing. And when both civic leaders and residents begin to feel more connected to one another — even across neighborhood boundaries — they are more likely to meet and connect with one another in public space.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.