Restore the abandoned buildings, keep the libraries and parks open, and have fun in civil society
“What if vacant property received the attention that, for decades, has been showered on petty crime?” The answer to this question, from an article in the New Yorker, is that if you “remediate” abandoned buildings in a neighbourhood, you can improve crime rates by up to thirty-nine percent. “We [in the US] invest little in housing and neighbourhood amenities like libraries, senior centers, and community gardens, which draw people into the public realm and put more eyes on the street”, says the author, sociologist Eric Klineberg.
The author’s point - expressed in his new book just available in the UK, Palaces of the People: How To Build A More Equal and United Society - is that we should be investing in those places and spaces whose primary function is to bring people, in their wildest diversity, together. From the publishers blurb:
Too often we take for granted and neglect our libraries, parks, markets, schools, playgrounds, gardens and communal spaces, but decades of research now shows that these places can have an extraordinary effect on our personal and collective wellbeing.
Why? Because wherever people cross paths and linger, wherever we gather informally, strike up a conversation and get to know one another, relationships blossom and communities emerge – and where communities are strong, people are safer and healthier, crime drops and commerce thrives, and peace, tolerance and stability take root.
Through uplifting human stories and an illuminating tour through the science of social connection, Palaces for the People shows that properly designing and maintaining this ‘social infrastructure’ might be our single best strategy for a more equal and united society.
In a Guardian article, Klineberg chooses to rhapsodise about the power of the library:
Libraries are not the kinds of institutions that most social scientists, policymakers, and community leaders usually bring up when they discuss social capital and how to build it. But they offer something for everyone, regardless of whether they’re a citizen, a permanent resident, or even a convicted felon – and all of it for free. Doing research in New York City, I learned that libraries and their social infrastructure are essential not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for buffering all kinds of personal problems – including isolation and loneliness.
I interviewed dozens of people about their memories of growing up in libraries and learned about all kinds of ways that the experience mattered: discovering an interest that they’d never have found without librarians. Feeling liberated, responsible, intelligent. Forging a new relationship, deepening an old one. Sensing, in some cases for the first time, that they belong.
Social infrastructure provides the setting and context for social participation, and the library is among the most critical forms of social infrastructure that we have. It’s also one of the most undervalued.
Today, we may have every reason to feel atomized and alienated, distrustful and afraid. But some places have the power to bring us together, and social bonding happens in thousands of libraries throughout the year.
Our communities are full of children whose future will be formed in the places where they go to learn about themselves and the world they’ll inherit. They deserve palaces. Whether they get them is up to us.
This might seem like a statement of the obvious in a UK context, where departments of culture, media and sport, and arts councils, have been making a strong social case for cultural investment for decades. And of course, talk of “palaces” recalls us to our old friends Fun Palaces, going from strength to strength.
But even on this side of the pond, the point sometimes has to be made anew. A recent Civil Society Futures blog reminded us that there are
49,140 voluntary and amateur arts groups in England, regularly involving 9.4 million people (‘Our Creative Talent’, DCMS/Arts Council England, 2008). There are thousands of choirs, amateur theatre groups, brass bands, morris dance troupes, quilters, lace-makers, painters, handbell ringers, ukulele festivals and much more. This vast sector forms a significant proportion of England’s civil society but tends to be somewhat overlooked in discussions about the future of civil society.
Maybe this is because, unlike many other civil society organisations, voluntary arts groups are not usually created in order to alleviate a particular social problem, to regenerate an area or to campaign for policy change. Voluntary arts groups are typically formed by people who want an opportunity to take part in a creative activity because they enjoy it and want to share it with others. On the face of it this may appear less worthy than more traditional charitable aims.
But the activities of these tens of thousands of voluntary arts groups have been shown to: enhance health and wellbeing; increase self esteem and self confidence; improve communication and social skills; develop leadership skills; create a sense of identity and belonging; improve social cohesion; increase intergenerational contact; increase desirability of an area; increase literacy, verbal and communication skills; and generate a considerable amount of economic activity and value (‘The role of grassroots arts activities in communities: a scoping study’, Third Sector Research Centre, 2011).
The fact that so many millions of people are attracted to take part in voluntary arts groups suggests that the motivation of doing something you enjoy is a good way to generate a wide range of benefits for participants and communities. The voluntary arts attracts huge numbers of people who would not otherwise play an active role in their communities. Voluntary arts activity is often cross-generational and brings people together who would otherwise have little contact with each other.