Reimagining the Civic Commons

Rituals and common moments

Detroit Riverfront; photo credit: Nadir Ali

By Bridget Marquis

In August, the Civic Commons Learning Network hosted a learning journey to Detroit to explore socioeconomic mixing. We explored public places and programs across the city and visited with the leaders behind them who shared both insights, inspirations and challenges in creating shared experiences across difference and in fostering and diverse constituencies for the civic commons.

A few notions that struck me as threads running across our three days of explorations:

The importance of rituals.

From the regular Saturday pilgrimage to Eastern Market to the Monday evening Slow Rolls, there is value in establishing expected routines for diverse communities to gather in concert with one another.

Slow Roll captures diverse participants for its weekly ride

There is evidence to support that these rituals, in and of themselves, may yield more social cohesion. In his book Pre-Suasion, social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini shares research that indicates that “when people act in unison, they not only see themselves as more alike, they evaluate one another more positively afterward.” In fact, he finds “their elevated like-ness turns into elevated liking.” Given the potential of acting in unison to create a sense of unity among diverse communities, there is a major opportunity for the civic commons to foster rituals as an avenue for creating connection among strangers.

Detroit RiverFront Conservancy’s Mark Wallace offered some insights on how:

– When approaching programming, think about its potential for becoming a ritual.

– Partner with programmers who can offer a regular schedule that the public can anticipate. Its great to stumble upon yoga on the river once, but then you want to be able to plan it into your weekly life.

– Seek partners who can offer more than a one-off event, as regularity allows for organic growth over time.

Yoga on the Detroit Riverfront; photo courtesy of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy

Identifying common moments in our everyday lives.

Food comes up in many conversations on socioeconomic mixing. We all need to eat, so how might we strengthen public life through this common need? Detroit’s Eastern Market offers a wide spectrum of opportunities to use food as a gathering point. People doing weekly shopping right alongside others who are there for a quick bite. And all at a variety of price points that allow for food to be the common denominator across a broad socioeconomic mix.

Eastern Market bustles on Saturdays; photo credit: Nadir Ali

Water and nature were identified as two additional elements that cut across boundaries and bring people together. During our tour, Ritchie Harrison of the Conservancy reflected on the desire for access to the river by Detroiters of all stripes. Given the, perhaps, intrinsic draw to these universal elements, its no surprise that cities from Philadelphia to Detroit to Memphis are reconsidering the potential of their waterfronts as civic spaces.

Ritchie Harrison shares Detroit Riverfront and the draw of the water

Socioeconomic mixing as financial sustainability for the civic commons.

Even civic assets that are considered widely successful often have challenges in figuring out sustained funding models. There is an opportunity to explore this more deeply through the learning network to determine models, including value capture, for the long term sustainability of the civic commons. It isn’t a large leap to imagine that creating shared experiences across wide diversity could build constituencies that demand continued investment in the civic commons, if you can move people from participants in the civic commons to advocates for it.

Mark Wallace discusses the challenges of financial sustainability of even successful public places like the Dequindre Cut; photo credit: Nadir Ali

As the demonstrations progress, I’m eager to see how they might incorporate rituals and build on common moments in our everyday lives to cultivate mixing. And through this coming together, can we generate the demand for more and continued investment in these places that unite us across all of our differences?

Civic Commons Learning Journey participants in Eastern Market; photo credit: Nadir Ali

Bridget Marquis is director of the Civic Commons Learning Network housed at U3 Advisors.

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