We can’t forget how important public gathering spaces are to our democracy

In Kansas City, community orchards are giving neighbors more than just fresh produce. The orchards and gardens provide gathering spaces for residents and build a network of neighborhood leaders. What started as a local effort to redevelop an abandoned railroad into community green space has turned into a civic network known as the Giving Grove, comprising 380 gardens in 10 cities, fostering community connection and building civic power one garden at a time.

Projects like Giving Grove are popping up around the country and are vital for the health of our democracy. Public gathering spaces like gardens, libraries, community centers, parks and public spaces are forms of civic infrastructure that build relationships and networks of support toward public participation and problem-solving. We cannot forget the civic infrastructure — the people, places and programs that are the essential backbone of our democracy, in our discussions of roads and bridges. The trusted intermediaries, grounded in communities’ historic inequities, memories and place, are some of the most important stalwarts against the anti-democratic forces at play across the country. Civic infrastructure can also be one important tool for advancing equity, as Policylink documented on its priority areas for the Biden-Harris administration to focus on to advancing racial equity through the American Rescue Plan.

Building this critical work of civic infrastructure to restore our national democracy is local by design and grounded in communities. In cities like Memphis and New York City, local librarians are joining forces to reinvigorate libraries as forms of civic infrastructure. Supported by the Our Common Purpose project from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Libraries as Bridges initiative aims to highlight the role that libraries play to promote democratic ideals in local communities by fostering community stewardship and developing civic engagement. One of the recommendations of the Our Common Purpose report was to develop a trust for funding civic infrastructure in local communities. 

Community-based projects provide critical spaces and avenues of support for residents, especially those who are underserved by other government institutions to have a say in their community and build healthier, safer, more equitable neighborhoods. In Baltimore and Philadelphia, community-based projects to redevelop vacant lots into public space are proving to not only be models for civic engagement but also a successful strategy for improving public health and safety systemically underinvested neighborhoods. These kinds of community-based investment projects have been associated with decreased rates of gun violence and depression.

Now is the time for our country to make much-needed investments in civic infrastructure to strengthen the muscles of civic engagement as a counterweight to the threats against democracy. In our current political climate, there is a lack of public trust in government institutions. The latest polling suggests Americans have historic low trust in the Supreme Court, with only 23 percent of Americans showing confidence. Yet, local communities now find themselves having to solve complex and challenging policy issues as a result of widespread federal deregulation from recent Supreme Court decisions.

To address these challenges, we need to support projects that bring people together across divides to build trust and agency in self-governing communities. As federal money from the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, becomes available for local infrastructure projects, we need to ensure funds are invested in a participatory and inclusive way that strengthen the capacity of local democracy, especially for under-invested and marginalized communities. 

There are a range of philanthropic and civil society organizations engaged working to try to insure local and state governments have the capacity to effectively and equitably spend these federal dollars. The once-in-a-generation investment provided by the bipartisan infrastructure law is coupled with increased awareness that our democracy is not working. The latest polling shows both Democrats and Republicans calling for structural change. These changes have to include supporting the assets that help communities to thrive and flourish in the 21st century.  Now is a unique opportunity to invest and leverage the strength of civic infrastructure in our neighborhoods and build up the civic muscles to strengthen our country.

Hollie Russon Gilman, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program and an affiliate fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She is the co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Inequality” and served in the Obama administration as the White House open government and innovation adviser.

Tags Civic engagement civic infrastructure Hollie Russon Gilman Politics

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