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Re-Connecting Communities Through Outdoor Spaces

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By James E. Wright II

Wright juneIn the early 2000s, we saw an explosion with the advancement of technology including the increased use of computers, smart phones and other high-speed technology. While these advancements have brought about positive externalities with increased globalization and increased information access, it has also brought about negative externalities. The major externality associated with increased technology has been the alienation of individuals from each other in society.

Robert Putnam was wise beyond his years when he wrote bowling alone indicating that we are continuing to see a decline in social capital among individuals. What Putnam didn’t mention is what the tech boom of the early 2000s would create, which is a world full of strangers. The best and most efficient way to fix this problem is by using public space and more importantly the role of public parks.

According to the American Planning Association, a public space may be a gathering spot or part of a neighborhood, downtown, special district, waterfront or other area within the public realm that helps promote social interaction and a sense of community. Possible examples may include:

  • Parks.
  • Piers.
  • Plazas.
  • Lobbies.
  • Town squares.
  • Marketplaces.
  • Public greens.
  • Concourses.
  • Public commons and malls.
  • Sites within public buildings.
  • Public spaces within private buildings.
  • Special areas within convention centers or grounds.

At a micro level, the use of public parks is important to instill the feeling of cohesion within society. Public parks are important if we ever want to get back to a society that is more interconnected. Public parks create an environment that promotes cooperation and cohesion with different members of a community.

On any given day you can see a diverse group of people whether ethnically, socially or financially interacting at a public park. Public parks allow for an exchange of ideas and cultures that doesn’t appear at other places in society. Without the increased existence of public parks, individuals will continue to isolate themselves from each other. Older generations refer to the fact that today’s youth lack interpersonal skills like basic communication and part of that problem may arise from the lack of years spent at the neighborhood park. If we continue to isolate ourselves, we will continue to create generation after generation that is unable to function between peers outside of technology.

Public parks are ways to galvanize a community to create a greater sense of love and appreciation for everyone within that community. Individuals can live in a neighborhood but still not feel as though they are part of a community. One benefit of feeling part of a community is that each resident is familiar with one another. The best way for this to transpire is through events and interactions at a friendly and neutral setting for all residents at a public park.

When residents feel this sense of the community we will begin to see positive externalities such as community policing and greater levels of communication between residents. Community policing can be effective when residents have a high level of trust and admiration for the fellow residents. Events at public parks help generate these high levels of trust associated with community policing and greater sense of cohesion within the neighborhood.

Finally it is important to recognize that public parks hold importance in the many aspects they are utilized. Public parks often hold fairs or theme parks that come to a local city. These fairs or attractions can generate financial capital for the city by allowing businesses to utilize the open space. At times, we associate public parks with political events such as speaking events or marches. When events of this magnitude take place at a public park, we see the community rallying around a certain cause and that can lead to a sense of unity within the community. Small-business owners like personal trainers, have an outlet to pursue group activity classes for their clients. When people participate in these group fitness classes it leads to healthier individuals, which can have short term and long-term benefits.

At times, it is hard to quantify the significance public parks play in a neighborhood. It is important to realize that parks are a significant symbol within the community that have at most times existed before the families came to that community. To understand the significance of public parks let us remember what Jane Jacobs said:

“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

 

Author: James Edward Wright II grew up in Culver City, California. Wright recently completed a masters of public policy at Pepperdine University. He is entering the doctoral program in Public Administration and Policy at American University. Wright can be reached at [email protected]

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