Can the civic commons save America?

Lunch break in Pioneer Square in Portland, OR. Image credit: Parker Knight.

For those of us working to create more civically-engaged communities, the country has never felt more divided.

This is borne out by the daily news headlines, which tell of protest, growing inequality and partisan political fighting. It’s also demonstrated with data about how we live today, separated and segregated from one another, and with few opportunities left to bridge our differences in public space.

We all know in our hearts that informed and engaged people, with a diversity of opinions, are fundamental to a strong democracy. Yet Americans have never been more splintered from one another:

Distrust among Americans is increasing. The share of the population that believes “most people can be trusted” has fallen from a majority in the 1970s, to about one-third today. We can see the outcomes of this growing mistrust on social media and in divisive online commentary — and in our very divided political climate.

We live in politically like-minded geographies. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of consistent conservatives and about half (49 percent) of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.

Economic segregation is on the rise. Between 1970 and 2009 the proportion of families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods doubled from 15 percent to 33 percent.

Civic assets are seen as an “extra.” After the Great Recession, local governments cut funding for parks, libraries and civic assets, and too often view them as discretionary spending, not as places to boost engagement.

Clearly, these trends are working powerfully against informed citizens and more robust civic engagement. However, there a few hopeful signs on the horizon.

As cities cut staff and services to parks and recreation, libraries and public works in recent years, frustrated, citizens have begun taking matters into their own hands. DIY efforts to improve cities — sometimes known as “tactical urbanism” — continue to heat up, fueled by the massive move of young adults to cities.

Tactical urbanism is on the rise: Better Block volunteers building street furniture in Dallas. Image credit: Can Turkyilmaz.

Civic innovators with minimal resources and without the backing of powerful institutions have stepped in to organize change on the ground. Often, they’ve done this work without the notice or support of the “old guard” in American cities — the institutional and corporate power brokers who used to make all the civic decisions.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview the founders of modern day Portland, Oregon, to discover how that city had set itself on a path from sleepy, second-tier city to a model of robust public life. They told me how they reclaimed power from the small group of elected elites who used to wield their influence from the basement of a downtown hotel.

They decided that if they were to engage Portlanders in the civic life of their community, they had to be convinced to “live life in public.”

In other words, people had to be lured from the comfort and privacy of their living rooms and backyards and share public life in the company of strangers.

At the time there were a lot of impediments. There was a prohibition against playing music in the park. Sidewalk cafes were illegal. So they set out to eliminate as many of the rules and barriers that discouraged public life. And today, Portland has a wonderfully rich public realm and many signs of robust public life.

Neighborhood residents gather at the Last Thursday Art Walk on Alberta Street in Portland, OR. Image credit: Matias Stromberg.

Part of creating this better public life hinges on creating authentic public engagement, a process that provokes two-way dialogue, grassroots activism and co-creation. Unfortunately, modern-day “public engagement” is now proscribed and codified into law, and the process can be painful and alienating for many people. There are the three-minute requisite public comment periods, professional “engagement specialists,” and app-based questionnaires.

These efforts are failing to engage people, because they are episodic, driven by a project schedule and not community needs, and don’t fit naturally into people’s busy and stressful lives.We don’t need the occasional well-attended community meeting with a few dozen people in the audience to succeed, we need thousands of people engaged, every day, in the civic life of their city. And the places we inhabit everyday — the parks, libraries and community centers that already exist — can be a far more powerful way to stimulate a culture of engagement than any process or any app.

Part of this more robust civic engagement means taking neglected civic assets and rethinking them to get people of different incomes and different beliefs to share space together on a daily basis. Though we live economically segregated — and while we can’t force people with high incomes and people with low incomes to live near each other or send their kids to the same schools — we can encourage this socioeconomic mixing with good planning and policy. We can encourage it with reimagined civic assets that are intentionally sited, designed and programmed to be used by a diverse mix of people. And we can encourage it by creating inviting public life that welcomes everyone.

Aqua Zumba at Pop Up Pool Project. Image credit: Ben Bryant.

The 2015 Pop-up Pool in Philadelphia’s Francisville neighborhood is a shining example. Public pools have tortured racial histories, and as private pools have proliferated, support for and investment in public pools has waned, leaving a customer base consisting of those with no other options. In Philadelphia, that meant low-income, African-American and mostly under age 18.

A young man named Ben Bryant took a look at Philly’s pools and saw the potential for a much more dynamic neighborhood asset, one that could attract people from the two very different neighborhoods that bordered it. He set out to make the Francisville neighborhood pool — strategically located between a neighborhood of concentrated poverty and a neighborhood that had a lot of investment — into an inviting and welcoming place for everyone.

Beautiful seating and palm trees at the Pop Up Pool Project in Philadelphia. Image credit: Ben Bryant.

It wasn’t expensive or complicated: Ben added a few beautiful seating options where there were none, brought in a few palm trees, and made the space inviting and aesthetically pleasing. The pool staff added some water Zumba classes to the schedule. Then, Ben promoted it on social media and had an immediate hit. The pool suffered no loss of existing patrons, but it gained new popularity with residents who discovered the pool for the first time. People of different economic status, different ages, and parents and children happily filled up the pool together.

The program expands. Poolside yoga at another Philadelphia public pool the following summer. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

It took less than a month for the City of Philadelphia to announce that it planned to convert more of its pools to the pop-up pool model.

So where do we start, in our own cities? Maybe we nudge this socioeconomic mixing along by asking ourselves: How can we make it delightful for people of different incomes to live near one another and use the same public space? How do we create more value for people’s lives in the civic assets we already own?

The fate of communities — indeed, the fate of democracy — may hang in the balance.


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.