In the current political climate, placemaking practice could become even more important in rural and suburban committees then it is to urban public spaces and downtowns. Over the last thirty years the focus of community revitalization efforts has been almost exclusively urban. We have found that making great downtowns and public spaces is the key to improving the quality of life for city residents – and the evidence for this is everywhere. Focusing on urban centers only made sense in light of the significant economic and social decline of American cities beginning in the 1960’s. Cities were out. They were abandoned. Many downtowns were empty.
Today, the most important force in American political life seems to be a feeling of being left behind by those not on the coasts. There is much talk about “coastal elites” versus “flyover country.” J.D. Vance, in his best-selling book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” opens a striking window on the sociocultural world of the Scotch-Irish of southwestern Ohio. Vance is a former Marine and Ohio State and Yale Law School graduate who now works for venture capitalist Peter Thiel. He is clear-eyed about the folks among whom he grew-up. While Vance lovingly describes the tight bonds that hold Appalachian families together and their devotion to a shared, if often self-destructive, southern rural culture, he also describes a suspicion and disengagement from community institutions, even religious ones. Vance writes about a deep cynicism about politics and a profound alienation from cities, education and national cultural trends among his family and former neighbors. As described by Vance, these folks have little shared social experience outside of their families. They are deeply suspicious of outsiders.
A similar worldview is portrayed in Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” which is moving to Broadway after a successful run at the Public Theater. Sweat is particularly notable because it is about industrial workers in a small city in Pennsylvania, the characters are both white and black, and Nottage, the playwright, herself is African-American. Nottage’s characters have great depth and she writes with profound understanding. The play is about the fallout from the closing of the local factory that is community’s largest employer. What was most striking to me about the play was less the economic impact of the plant closure on its former employees (which, of course, was substantial), but its political and social impact. The workers become helpless, angry and defeated upon the closure of the factory – and they set upon each other. With the loss of work came loss of community and identity.
I would like to suggest that perhaps the time has come for placemakers to shift at least some of their focus to non-urban communities. Cities are generally doing pretty well; with a few notable exceptions. But to my knowledge not much thought is being giving to rebuilding the social ties in the less dense parts of the country through the creation of quality public spaces. I use the term “public space” here in the broadest possible sense to include parks, downtowns, schools, libraries or even coffee shops. That large swath of people who feel disengaged from their wider communities, and as result fall back on tribal impulses to fear the “other,” needs to be re-engaged. I would further suggest that the greatest need for this kind of work is in states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The best thing we might be doing right now in order to renew the national civic culture is to focus on working with the citizens of rural communities to reclaim their public spaces.
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is already working on a Department of Agriculture initiative dealing with design in rural spaces (http://www.rural-design.org/) – so there is a precedent for this kind of work. The community building programs that PPS does as the “front-end” work for public space and downtown revitalization may well be useful to less dense communities in addressing the apparent widespread discontent with the current state of affairs of their residents caused by social and civic disengagement. It might be argued that this kind of work is even more important where population density is lower – because people are physically further apart. As a result, making connections and having opportunities to share concerns and values are likely more logistically difficult in rural communities.
I suspect that the social changes being wrought by the internet are even more isolating in rural communities because they create opportunities for a kind of faux social experience. On the internet you can engaged in what feels like social interactions with other people – without having to actually ever get to know them or deal with issues of difference. If you don’t like the conversation, you just end it. This is much more difficult when you are sitting next to someone. And, as we all have experienced, social media has an addictive quality – crowding out other activities that involve real, satisfying social interaction. As a result, we become even more isolated from other people through our internet experiences rather than more engaged with them. The kind of vitriol and fake news that have become the meat and potatoes of the on-line experience for millions of Americans are unlikely to have transpired between two people actually talking to each other over the backyard fence.
Bringing the process of community engagement to less dense communities could provide significant improvements in the quality of life of their residents. Creating social spaces that draw people together over non-walkable distances would likely also improve feelings of being a part of the larger community and lower the anger and sense of alienation of those who don’t live in cities. I’m certainly wary of proposing an elite “coastal” approach to a problem people don’t even think they have, but placemaking practice has proven to be so successful in urban communities across the country, it seems to me very likely that it has great potential for enriching the lives of those who live outside of urban centers.
I’d like to suggest we spend more time thinking about both how community engagement and public space improvement might be adapted to less dense communities and about how to create vehicles for introducing this practice in rural communities so that it won’t be dismissed out of hand by those to whom the ideas involved might be alien. We also need to create scalable programmatic funding and implementation strategies that can bring this work to places where it has not previously been.
This is going to take some serious re-thinking. In less dense places cars are a necessity. Walking and biking are not realistic options in many, if not most of these places. Some of the “hipsterish” veneer and the kind of “eat your peas (or arugula)” moralism that placemaking has recently acquired and that reflects the sophisticated consumer preferences of some college-educated folks will need to be stripped away in order to introduce placemaking to non-urban residents. But the basic work of bringing people together, listening to them, having them listen to each other and leave the process feeling that they have been deeply heard could be essential in addressing some of the anger and alienation that has become such a potent political force. The creation of lively social spaces in small towns and suburban communities is likely every bit as important in those places as it is to urban life – if, perhaps, very different in form. When people are not connected to folks outside of their immediate families it is easy to understand how they might become isolated and disengaged from larger social networks. Without firsthand experience of people from different backgrounds and points of view, how can we be expected to understand and appreciate those differences? I suspect that the frustration becomes even more potent when people feel like no one either in their own communities or nationally is paying attention to their concerns.
At its essence, our work in public space improvement is about bringing people together into shared space to have experiences that enrich their lives. Not only is there no reason that this should be a uniquely urban experience – in fact, it may be an essential cornerstone to a high quality of life (as well as to the strengthening of democratic values) everywhere people live in this country. The places to start are in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.