I caught up with Carol Coletta, senior fellow with the American Cities Practice at the Kresge Foundation, at the SXSW Cities Summit to talk about reimagining the civic commons—the Kresge Foundation’s initiative focused on revitalizing and connecting public places such as parks, plazas, trails and libraries. We chatted about shifting perceptions about these public places and managing them in ways that connect people of all backgrounds, cultivate trust and counter the trends of social and economic fragmentation in cities and neighborhoods.
I attended an incredible session that you organized that talked about the idea of reimagining the civic commons. Trails were a theme that carried throughout the session, which is something that we know well at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy—that trails are an important asset in all of our communities. Carol, what are civic commons, and how are trails relevant?
Carol Coletta: Civic Commons is a way of thinking about the civic infrastructure that already exists in our community—and when we say civic infrastructure, infrastructure really should be about more than roads and bridges and transit. I know you know that because you've done a great job of putting trails on the infrastructure list. We think there's an opportunity to add libraries and parks and recreation centers and all those things that exist throughout our communities—in every neighborhood—but have become a little calcified over the years. They've been disinvested. People who could afford to buy services elsewhere have done so, and it's left those places politically vulnerable just at a time when we need them the most, because today it's all about the need to rebuild trust to support a democracy, to support communities, to support our thinking about equity in our communities. So, we've been thinking about how to reimagine those civic assets—that civic infrastructure—to transform communities into vibrant, equitable places.
I was inspired listening to the panelists this morning talk about how important connections to civic infrastructure are—making sure that people not only have that space in their communities and that it is invested in, but that they can get to it. That’s where some of those common themes about the trail connections were coming in [to the conversation]. Do you have any ideas about how, as we're also investing in rebuilding that civic infrastructure, we think about connecting it as well?
Well, I think you're absolutely right. Connections are and have always been important. If you think about it fundamentally, that's what cities are—they’re just a big connection machine. That's why people move to cities. To get connected to jobs, other people, potential spouses, education and opportunity. I think trails are a very important physical manifestation of connections and the importance of connection. I think the other part—that for me that fits in really nicely with the panel discussion—is that we talked about the fact that we need to change our mindset to a mindset of abundance. To a mindset of assets and not deficits. If you think of where a lot of trails come from, they were abandoned railroad lines. They were forgotten riverfronts. It's the back of the house frequently, and they have been forgotten for years. The fact that what was considered a deficit is being reclaimed, not just as an asset but spectacular assets for our cities, is just extraordinary. I've seen the research that says trails give you 50x leverage in terms of the catalytic value of trails. I'm not surprised because, again, it's all about what fundamentally community is about—connecting us.
Cities are a really important starting place for this conversation. I think you hit on it well—cities are places full of connections. These are places where people go to seek out new opportunities. For those who are already living there, there are opportunities right now to create new connections to what already exists. But how do we start to—in the next several years, five years—extend this conversation beyond cities to start to touch our suburbs and our small towns?
Well, the good news is this cvic infrastructure exists in every community, not just cities or city neighborhoods but absolutely in suburbs and rural communities. I think what is a little more challenging in some of those places is that if those places are demographically not diverse, then I think the civic infrastructure is a little more challenging to bring people across socioeconomic divides together. However, it just says they're all the more needed. I think trails actually perform at a much … higher level in terms of mixing it up—and that's what we need today is really mixing it up and bridging the divides.
For our audience—we have a grassroots network that's more than a million strong, a powerful asset for action in their communities—what advice do you have for them to get involved in civic infrastructure, to help create these resources in the cities where they live and in the towns where they live?
Well, you know better than I do what's working in terms of their creation, but I would say always advocate, always use. The more use there is on trails, the more people notice and the more people feel invited to use, and the more politicians take notice. So, use it. Advocate for it. Find new opportunities for it. And just realize what has been created, what that network of activists have created in a very short time, is really transforming the places we live and adding enormous quality of life to our hometowns. Bravo to them. I appreciate them because I use trails. Just keep on keepin’ on.
Visit civiccommons.us for more information about the Kresge Foundation’s Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.