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.