Re-imaging the Civic Commons - Cities: Where Opportunity Meets Place

Submitted by sylvia cheuy on September 12, 2015 - 1:23pm
Resource Type: Report || Author: The Municipal Art Society of New York

Civic Commons is a term that refers to the facilities and shared spaces where a city’s residents “celebrate, learn, rest, play, make key decisions, express collective aspirations and provide for themselves and one another.”  The civic commons is also increasingly being recognized as an important factor in the quality of life of citizens and the ability to attract and retain the talent and investment needed to support the overall economic vitality of cities.  Re-imagining the Civic Commons – Cities: Where Opportunity Meets Place is a new report by the Municipal Art Society of New York that invites us to consider some of the less obvious, yet important ways that the civic commons contributes to city life and highlights some new possibilities that can be realized by challenging the way we think about, and utilize, our civic assets.        

Shifting Trends and the Eroding of Shared Space 

In the early 1900s, wealthy donors, corporations, faith-based and charitable organizations in all contributed to create their city’s civic commons – libraries, community centres, schools and settlement houses – that served the collective needs of its citizens.  

Since the 1960s however there has been a “downward spiral away from the commons.”  The result is a vicious circle: disconnected and poorly funded civic assets lose their effectiveness; people who can afford to opt for private amenities.  Swimming pools are a good example: data shows that across the U.S. the number of private, in-ground swimming pools grew from 2,500 in 1950 to 5.2 million in 2009.  And, in 2012 the City of Sacramento – population 450,000 – had closed all but three of its public swimming pools due to competing municipal priorities.  The loss of a community asset like a swimming pool is easy to see and quantify.  However, less tangible but equally significant, is the loss that the absence of this shared space created to the community’s social fabric.

Community assets and shared spaces “present opportunities for social interactions and chance encounters that foster neighborhood cohesion, cultural expression, a sense of belonging, the ability to source the ingenuity of others, and the advancement of our economic pursuits.”  These informal interactions amongst diverse citizens are crucial in nurturing a city’s social capital.  The authors caution, “If public comes to mean only for those who cannot afford private, we have a precarious inversion of the original purpose of the civic commons.”  The authors identify eight indicators as evidence that, in America, people’s sense of commonality and connection is eroding.  The eight indicators that Americans have less in common are:

  1. Distrust is Increasing – In the 1970s 50% of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted” but in 2014 that number had shrunk to 33% 
  2. Significantly Less Time Spent with Neighbors – In 1970, 29% of Americans spent time with neighbors at least twice a week and only 21% had no interaction with their neighbors.  In 2015, only 19% spend regular time with neighbors and 33% report no interaction at all 
  3. TV is the Single Largest Use of Leisure Time – In 1965 the average person spent 10 hours per week watching TV.  By 2013 this had increased to 19 hours.  During the same time period the amount of time spent socializing had fallen by 10% 
  4. Private Pools Increasing While Public Ones Close – From 1950 to 2009 the number of private, in-ground swimming pools grew from 2,500 to 5.2 million 
  5. Driving Alone is the Norm: Public Transit is for the Poor – In 2014, 85% of Americans travel to work in cars, up from 63% in 1960; 10% of people carpool a decline from 20% in 1980; and commuting via transit has declined from 12% in 1960 to less than 5% today.  Outside the handful of large cities with excellent transit systems, public transit is limited almost exclusively to those who cannot afford a car or don’t drive 
  6. Middle Income Neighborhoods are Shrinking – Between 1970 – 2009 the percentage of families living in predominantly poor or predominantly wealthy neighborhoods doubled from 15% to 33% and those living in in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65% to 42% 
  7. Gated Communities Are On the Rise – By 1997, there were more than 20,000 gated community developments with 3,000 or more residents 
  8. Like-Minded People Stick Together – In 2014, 63% of self-reported conservatives and 49% of self-reported liberals said that most of their close friends share their political views.

Emerging Opportunities to Re-build the Civic Commons 

The authors of this report believe that today’s cities are at a “crucial inflection point” with respect to their civic commons.  Citing a “fundamental disconnection between the physical assets that most cities own and manage and what a cross section of their population needs and wants” as well as gaps, disconnections and constraints that limit shared programming across city departments and with community partners.

They suggest that “a connected, aligned and modernized civic commons system” offers the possibility of emphasizing a city’s local uniqueness and enable them to be more flexible, adaptive and responsive to the needs and wants of citizens in the use of their civic assets.  One example cited to illustrate what’s possible is Pittsburgh’s City of Learning Program, which links together a number of its civic assets – libraries, museums and public schools – offers accessible learning opportunities via a network of partners and incentives to help young people map out pathways to college or career success.

Translating these opportunities into realities will require municipalities to be willing to surrender the desire to either own or do everything in favor of embracing collaboration and being open to eliminating arcane zoning restrictions, bylaws and rules that undermine creativity and innovation.  Technology also offers the promise of facilitating greater transparency and connectivity between civic assets.  The report ends by posing three questions to consider when imaging the future of the civic commons:

  • What are the levers for modernizing, aligning, connecting and sustaining the civic commons? 
  • How can a connected and strategically aligned set of civic assets build competitive advantage for cities?; and, 
  • How can digital technology be used to connect assets to deliver more value and make them more sustainable?

There is a compelling need to reconsider how we use – and view – the civic commons of our cities in order to maximize their capability to deliver value that is responsive to the changing realities of citizens and municipalities.

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