Reimagining the American Civic Commons

Reimagining the American Civic Commons

Much has been written and researched as to how and why America is fracturing. We’re divided politically, racially, economically, and geographically. The bad American habit of self-sorting is becoming increasingly entrenched.

It is especially disheartening to see poverty in our cities that is persistent and spreading. Over a 40-year period, the number of high-poverty census tracts in America’s core cities has tripled, their population has doubled, and the number of poor people in those neighborhoods has doubled. Only 10 percent of the census tracts that were high poverty in 1970 had rebounded to below poverty status by 2010.

Even the most diverse cities are rarely integrated by race at the neighborhood level. And that pattern is reflected in our schools, which still remain profoundly segregated.

Politically, too, we have sorted ourselves into like-minded geographies. Nearly two-thirds of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.

But our separation is not limited to economic and political divisions. It is also reflected in the way we spend our time — and with whom. 

Americans now spend significantly less time with their neighbors. In the 1970s, for instance, nearly 30 percent of Americans frequently spent time with neighbors, and only 20 percent had no interactions with them. Today, those proportions are reversed.

Being segregated doesn’t just mean not living together, it also means not being invested in one other. As we have self-sorted, the places that once acted as common grounds in our communities — our parks, libraries, recreation centers, and the like — have come under extreme budget pressure. Those who can afford to purchase private services have disappeared from the public realm, turning instead to Amazon for their books, gym memberships for recreation, country clubs for swimming, and elite traveling sports leagues for kids — foregoing public libraries, parks, and school leagues.

When we privatize our daily lives and isolate ourselves to interact only with those who share our economic status and our political and religious leanings, we end up having less in common as a community and as a nation.

Will we continue to privatize activities once enjoyed in public and isolate ourselves at every opportunity? Or, will we find ways to increase a sense of belonging and membership among us all — and, most especially, those who have been left out and made to feel like outsiders?

This is the challenge of our time for America’s cities. Unless we can gain some common sense of purpose — unless we begin to act like we are all in this together — our communities and our country will continue to split apart.

How do we reinvigorate the idea of the American commons?

A place to begin is with those public buildings and public spaces that dot most of our neighborhoods and that once were the pride of our communities, serving rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purposes were nurtured. These are not simply buildings and ball parks but democratizing institutions that foster inclusion and opportunity. They ought to be places where everyone in the neighborhood can belong.

A group of determined philanthropic partners across the U.S. are seeking to reverse the trends of decay and inattention by reanimating these assets to meet the urgent need to rebuild common purpose among us.

One year ago, interested cities were invited to think how they might tackle this challenge of reimagining the civic commons. Since then, city teams have joined with a host of urban experts, IDEO, and a rich, extended network of local leaders to prototype and refine their ideas.

The idea of investing in civic assets is now gaining momentum. These cities will share more than $40 million in grants, with more than $20 million coming from national foundations, matched by another $25 million from local sources. They will use this support to redevelop and strengthen the very things that make cities so special: public places, free and open to all, which may constitute our best opportunity to build common purpose.

Is this all it will take to bridge what divides us? No. But in the same way birds build their nests from whatever is available, we should begin with our libraries, parks, and recreations centers, which are available and everywhere around us.

Reimagining the civic commons is a low-risk, practical way to begin knitting our communities back together. And unless we start now, we risk a future of communities full of strangers, suspicious of one another because they share so little of their daily lives.

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