Better Civic Pride And Well-Being Is Just A Short Walk Away

CityLab ran an article from The Atlantic today discussing how the availability of amenities like libraries and cafes within walking distance of your home bolstered civil society and personal well-being in that neighborhood.

A new study shows that living near community-oriented public and commercial spaces brings a host of social benefits such as increased trust, decreased loneliness, and stronger sense of attachment to where we live.

If this sounds interesting, read the whole piece because it offers much more detail about how this situation increases civic participation and trust in neighbors and local government.

These issues were on my mind Saturday as I was attending a block party in the nearby Pleasant Hill neighborhood here in Macon, GA. Pleasant Hill has been a historically black neighborhood since the professional class started building homes there in the 1870s. However, in the 1960s the neighborhood was bisected by the construction of I-75 and portion of those buried in the cemetery were disinterred. Conditions began to worsen as people moved out of the neighborhood.

Now with the widening of I-75 carving more of the neighborhood away there is attention and effort being paid to improving the conditions. A colleague of mine has been an energetic crusader in this regard and has been awarded a number of grants in support of her proposed projects.

The block party on Saturday was part of one of these projects. She and some others had gone door to door asking people what they would like to see happen with an abandoned community space. Five designs created based on that feedback were on display at the block party on Saturday. People were invited to vote for their favorite design by placing a colored dot on a poster board.

Since I know that there is often a lot of will behind building a space, but less support for operations, I was evaluating the plans for sustainability. All of them had some elements associated with artistic programming, but some emphasized the creation of community gardens. Another had some retail space with barber shops and nail salons. Another was oriented toward counseling services, study spaces and writing programs. Two of them were totally about artistic expression. There were dance studios; spaces for painting and drawing and performance spaces.

Most of the dots were ending up in the columns of these heavily arts spaces. I sighed inwardly. Those would be some great spaces, but they didn’t seem optimized for self-support. One of those designs might get built, but was there a plan to support it? (Good lord! This sounds just like the funder rational I often criticize. I have been infected!)

Besides, didn’t they already have activities like that at the much larger community center across the street?

No, actually they didn’t.

I walked across to see what was in the community center and it was quickly clear there hadn’t been any activities or staff of any kind in there for quite a few years.

This might be even more of an argument for a self-sufficient design, but it also possibly provided insight into the preferences of the voters.

People were drawn to the project designs that would provide them with what they didn’t have — a place to participate in some basic creative expression. Kids were congregating in front of the pictures of people taking dance and art classes because they didn’t have access to anything of the sort.

I was considering whether I wanted to write about this today as I walked back to my car on Saturday. The article on CityLab decided me because the idea that such places create stronger community bonds and a sense of identity aligned so strongly with what I felt I was observing.

I Probably Don’t Really Know What My Audience Values Even Though I Am In The Lobby Before, After, And At Intermission

I bookmarked a guest post on Museum 2.0 a month ago. Now I feel guilty for not circling back to it sooner. Nina Simon invited Martin Brandt Djupdræt, a manager at Danish museum,  to write about how his organization has all the decision makers interact with visitors as part of their audience research effort.

Their approach is super simple, though a little time consuming. A member of management approaches a random visitor and asks if they can follow the visitor around to observe where they go in the museum and what they interact with. Three weeks later they give the visitor a call and ask:

• why they chose this museum,
• what they noticed especially during the visit,
• whether they interacted with anyone, and
• whether they had talked to anyone about the museum after the visit, and what about

Every decision maker in the organization seems to be required to participate, from management to curators. Djupdræt says the goal is to get managers up and away from their desks interacting with people with whom they wouldn’t normally come in contact.

As you might imagine, what the managers and curators were sure people valued about the museum wasn’t quite accurate. Even those with more direct contact with visitors were surprised by what they learned.

The curators were surprised by how important other parts of the museum besides the historical content were for the visitor. The F&B manager and the head of HR were surprised by how many objects and stories the visitors were absorbed in. This has also given us insights into the work of our colleagues and made us appreciate their work to a larger extent. Now we all have useful and inspiring stories about visitors’ choices and the impact the museum had on them.

Another observation was the importance of food and drink. In our trackings we could see how much time the visitors spent on the museum’s eating places and the great social importance these breaks had. Something we learned about food through the interviews was that the guests consider the food at the museum as part of the museum’s storytelling. This insight has encouraged us to focus on food and food history as a priority topic at the museum, and a colleague is going to work particularly with that subject.


Visitors have always been a focus for the management, but the research have personalized our audience and they are discussed differently now. As the head of finance described it: “I normally look at whether a task is well done, financially possible and efficient, but now I also consider more seriously how a visitor would feel and react to the changes we plan.”

I especially wanted to include that last section as a reminder that measuring success by efficiency and expense doesn’t necessarily equate to providing a fulfilling experience.

One thing Djupdræt didn’t cover that I was curious about was why they waited three weeks to follow up. I didn’t know if that was a social practice in Denmark where it was rude to immediately survey people about their experience or if it was calculated to see how much of the visitor experience still made an impression three week later.

The whole article is a reminder not to depend entirely on surveys as an evaluation tool. Yes, it is an important practice to have people in the back office interacting directly in a focused manner with the people the organization serves, but there is also the shift of perspective this practice brings. You would assume a food and beverage manager would have fairly extensive interactions with visitors and would be paying close attention to trends.  That person at the Djupdræt’s museum still found themselves surprised by some of the insights they gained.

Dark Side of Word of Mouth

I participated in a work session for the development of a cultural masterplan for the county today. My table was focused on ideas to attract creative professionals to the community. There was a pretty good cross-section of arts disciplines plus a couple people from the general community involved in the discussion so the quality of the conversation was surprising informative.

Some of the conversation revolved around the lack of infrastructure to ensure a consistent transition for creatives through all stages of their development. People could gain education up to a certain point, then had to leave to continue their education, but could return because there were some opportunities suited to that education. There was discussion about how to fill in that gap with things like mentoring or apprenticeships.

There was a similar conversation related to the frequency of film productions in town who had to leave to do editing and scoring elsewhere because there were no facilities for that locally. Yet there are a number of highly skills musicians capable of contributing to film/tv/video game scores. There are two product that might be of mutual benefit to each other, but nothing to bind them together.

As much as discussions like that raised my awareness about resources, there were some parts of the conversation with which I was all too familiar. A big impediment to attracting new creatives to the community was the lack of value placed on the artistic product.

People want musicians to play for free. People want to pass very little for lessons, apparently unaware of the rent and material costs associated with teaching visual arts disciplines.  Local people view the work on display at the major ceramics show as overpriced while people from out of town swoon at getting great work so cheaply.

Something that did catch my attention was mention that it is apparently difficult for new arts schools to make people aware of their existence due to the decline of traditional media channels and the way social media like Facebook has prioritized information from friends over ad content and news.

Basically, in a place where there is good word of mouth advising people where to send their kids for lessons, it is difficult for new players to break in.  From what I was told, the person trying to open a new school found that those yard signs people put up during elections were pretty effective. Unfortunately, zoning laws prevented where they could be placed and for how long. There are 3-4 existing schools in the same category and they apparently all said they don’t advertise and depend solely on word of mouth to get business.

Now theoretically, some good search engine optimization should provide the new kid in town with some exposure for anyone randomly searching for lessons. But sometimes even new residents try to tap into the local reputation network as they get themselves set up rather than doing general searches. One woman mentioned she was a long time resident of the community, but a friend just moving into the area told her where she should be looking for schools and services for her family. The newcomer had been investing a lot of effort soliciting word of mouth recommendations.

Learning this was a small peek into the dark side of word of mouth. I haven’t thought about it and paid attention to behavior enough to make any pronouncements about implications for arts and culture in general. If this is a reflection of what is happening in many communities, then a dependence on word of both in the context of a national fracturing along socio-political lines could be quite concerning. But if this is a dominant factor in my community and only associated with extra-curricular activities, then it probably isn’t a big deal.

It still may be worth paying attention to how reputation networks are operating in your communities.

Big Kids Play With Bigger Blocks

I saw an article on Gizmodo in the last couple weeks about scientists who designed 3,900 pound concrete structures that can be moved by a single person. As I read about cuts to arts in schools and the elimination of recess, I figured there was a need to toss out an example in support of unstructured free time.

There are a bunch of fun to watch GIFs on the article’s page, but here is a video of what they did:

As some of the commenters to the article point out, yes it is one thing to roll pre-cast objects over a concrete floor and another to quarry stone to transport over muddy ground. So while this may not entirely explain how Stonehenge, the pyramids and the Moai of Rapa Nui were created, there is some proof of concept upon which to base the design of structures to be used in emergency situations.

From my point of view, the development of the objects people are moving around have some basis in playing with Legos or other building materials and may move on to increasingly practical applications. I am sure that at some point in the past, at least one person who contributed to the design of the project was afforded the time to juggle things around in their hands to see how it all fit together and explore the properties of what they made were. Leaps of imagination and experimentation occurred until someone made a video of people rocking two ton chunks of concrete around with a light push.

Time to play with the simplest objects can result in new insights. But that is difficult to accomplish if you grow up thinking there is no value in such activities, exploration and curiosity.

This may not be the first time you heard about someone gaining insight into ancient construction techniques. A retired construction worker in Michigan demonstrated some much more compelling theories about ancient construction techniques some years ago. (I couldn’t find any better quality video than this.) He employed the same design elements of rounded/beveled edges to great effect, especially considering he was moving blocks across less prepared surfaces and using tools more readily available to anyone.

Though to use his techniques in an emergency situation, you would need much more knowledge to construct barriers and structures than with the prefabricated concrete objects in the first video.

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