Civics & City Making

Civic life is built from an ever-changing interweaving of individual and collective actions, structures, platforms and myriad other dynamics evident and invisible. It is crafted by people together with their hands — “be it in cities, towns, and communities all across the country, but there is no single center of gravity” (Hollie Gilman). Some mend, some beautify, some work at the edges, but many roles happen at once as a live choreography across communities, changing patterns over time. The question today is, given this complexity, how do we identify and work towards structural changes that strategically improve civic life?

Balancing democractic, civic, and economic priorities is not easy. Helping those in challenging conditions, equitably developing, distributing, and managing basic necessities, and contributing to a culture of thriving families, communities, and habitats at a scale requires asking questions about how different issues relate. For instance, how should land be used and divided, how should food be grown and distributed, how should community be cultivated and developed, how should infrastructure be developed and provided, how should conflicting interests be managed and relationships enriched, and more. The economic conditions and power structures that shape civic life at large act as a loom, setting the pattern. When not calibrated to the needs of people, civic life becomes distorted and lacking meaning. While it is easy to think of this loom as a product of natural laws, it is worth remembering that in fact it results from contingent decisions of history. 

How should everyday people, public institutions, and private organizations work together to set priorities for common good and shared prosperity? How are the lived experiences of residents, civil servants, and local groups brought together for impact? Without asking how civic life comes to be and operates, what conditions civic life affords for whom and in what ways, current approaches to local decision-making will result in marginal improvement at best. How does the tapestry decide what cultures it needs, what social, environmental, and psychological interventions are most important, and what design process would specify and develop what those interventions should be? Who asks if important decisions are being approached in the right way and to what end? Improving the quality of people’s lives depends on a collective practice of asking better questions. Voices need to be heard and views need to be understood to specify better pathways toward a vibrant civic life. We only need to turn to the invention of U.S. libraries in the 20th Century as inspiration for what’s possible.