The original version of this post first appeared on The Hill.
By Carol Coletta
America has become a politically divided and fractured country. That’s especially clear now, after the Presidential election, but the divisions were apparent long before. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that Americans were growing ever more ideologically polarized. In October 2016, Pew found increasing skepticism that either party’s candidate could heal those divisions. Social circles are polarizing, too: nearly two-thirds of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals report that most of their close friends share their political views.
We’re growing apart at exactly the time we need to be coming together. How and where do we start to rebuild the social fabric essential to our democracy?
We have an idea: let’s start by reimagining our libraries, parks, trails, plazas, community centers and schoolyards as places where people of all backgrounds and views can exchange ideas and address problems. Places where our differences can be talked about and accepted in civility, and where our common dreams can be shared.
This is the vision of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a three-year, national initiative that seeks to counter the economic, social and political fragmentation in cities. By revitalizing urban public places from trails to abandoned buildings to riverfront promenades, our hope is to bring people together from widely differing backgrounds—and to bridge the divides between us.
Essentially, we’re recreating the public spaces built in America’s early days, places of gathering that nurtured discourse, discussion and democracy. We’re bringing back the town square with a modern spin, creating places with community gardens, bike paths and pop-up stores to appeal to today’s tastes.
We’re testing the idea in five cities—Akron, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia—and will expand to more places if the seeds of community take root.
For example, local leaders in Akron are working together to connect three civic assets that run along a three-mile section of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. The northern end of the project area is home to the highest-paid employees and some of the largest businesses in the city, while the southern end of the project area includes one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the county. Memphis is focusing on four neglected blocks downtown along the Mississippi River that were originally deeded by the city’s founders for public use. The vision driving the “Fourth Bluff” project includes creating places where people of diverse backgrounds can share joy and vitality. Detroit’s civic commons project connects the 25 vacant land parcels between the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College, creating a linear greenway, walkable commercial redevelopment and green collar construction and maintenance jobs.
Why do we need these places? Because many of the services that once were public—the things we did together—have been abandoned or privatized over the past half-century. Today, people who can afford private services turn to online bookstores instead of libraries, to private gyms instead of community centers, and to elite sports leagues instead of school and park leagues. This privatization of what once was public has contributed to the polarization of people and communities.
Thanks to $40 million in funding from a group of national foundations and local matching grants, we will have our chance to reverse that trend by creating new centers of democracy and gathering. We strongly believe in the power of civic assets to break down barriers between citizens and to knit together communities. We need to gather together—differences and all—and start the conversations that will usher in a more unified future.
Carol Coletta is a senior fellow with The Kresge Foundation’s American Cities Practice.