Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Design for Community is Design for Strangers

This post is a hypothesis I'm exploring. Please amplify, poke holes, ask questions, and help me learn.

There are lots of places where we can come together with people we already know. Dinner tables. Coffee shops. School. Church. Ball fields. These places are important. The relationships they support are powerful. These places help us strengthen bonds with the people who matter most.

But those places are tribal places. They are places for people who are already affiliated--whether they have met previously or not.

What about places for strangers? Places where we encounter people who are truly different from us?

Those are places of uncertainty. Places of friction. Places of possibility.

Those are places that build community.

Or rather, those are places with the potential to build community. Sadly, most of these places are not intentionally designed to bring us together. They are built to let us pass each other, to practice "civil inattention." We look, we confirm that there is no imminent threat, we ignore, we walk by. Public space is designed for neutrality.

But what if we designed public space for community? What if we treated interpersonal collision as creative opportunity instead of risk? What if we used art to activate space in a different way? What if we designed spaces and interventions to bring people together?

These are the questions on my mind as I start working more intently on an outdoor plaza project. I've been reflecting a lot recently on our museum's work on "social bridging"--bringing people together across cultural, ethnic, geographic, generational, and socio-economic differences--and how to take it outside.

Recently, we made a conscious strategic decision to prioritize bridging experiences over bonding experiences in our programming. Not that bonding with people we already know is bad, nor that we don't want to support it at the museum. But bonding is easy. Bridging is hard. There are so many places and opportunities to bond, and so few opportunities to bridge.

There's a moral argument that we need more bridging to build strong civic life. But there's also a business differentiation argument. Bonding is crowded. Bridging is wide open.

At our museum, magic happens when we intentionally design opportunities for strangers to interact. Festivals that mash up dozens of seemingly-unrelated creative practices. Collaborations with unorthodox community partners. Exhibits that offer explicit invitations into dialogue with strangers. Pop Up Museums where people share the objects they hold most dear. Moments like the one in the photo, where two strangers made a meaningful connection without words, through art.

Now, our museum has received an ArtPlace grant to redevelop a forgotten plaza into a creative heart for Downtown Santa Cruz. I'm thrilled and finally realizing what this means for our community. I've been reading and thinking a lot about "creative placemaking"--both the possibility and the hype. And I realize that in public space, we have even more opportunity to do bridging work that makes a difference.

Public space has the greatest potential to be community space. Anyone can dwell there. Anyone can activate it. It's open 24 hours a day. And yet, so often one of two things happens:
  1. It gets turned into bonding space. It is commercialized, gentrified, or specified for a particular subset of the community. It becomes exclusive, either explicitly or implicitly.
  2. It gets neutralized and deadened. Seating gets removed, streets are built for cars, and laws turn lingering into loitering into crime.
These things happen because we are afraid and unsure of what will happen when strangers meet in public space. We don't have a business model for it. We don't have the liability insurance for it.

But I believe there is a business model. I believe the opportunities outweigh the risks. I believe this is the work we need to do to build our communities. Designing infrastructure and interventions that activate and connect us across our differences. Design that brings strangers together.

I look forward to exploring these ideas more with you in the months to come.
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