Home > Cultural Movement, Design the Details, Ecological Design, Economics, Editorial, Grand Visioning > Fostering connections in your community…by design

Fostering connections in your community…by design

…it is greatly appreciated._


EDITOR’S NOTE: The opportunity to write a guest commentary for TCBN was a nice challenge and chance to introduce the  place-focused intent of my writing over the last two years to a different audience. A big thank you to the editors at TCBN for the offer. I’ll be writing another piece for their June issue. 

* Originally published in the Traverse City Area Business News, April 2012

In Traverse City, we aren’t accustomed to 82 degree weather in mid-March. When it happened it was a major social event. People flocked outdoors. Downtown was buzzing. We populated parkland, the bayfront, trails, sidewalks, and neighborhoods. Acquaintances chatted with each other in the streets and corners. Public spaces were occupied for no reason other than to be out and about.

Winter met a dramatic end; we wanted to see people.

Collective happenings like these are when the potential vibrancy of a place is on full display. They nudge us out of our normal routines and into shared space. Seeing the energy and activity makes one wonder: why don’t we spend more time out and about? Going for strolls for no reason other than to people watch. Seeking chance encounters and random acts of community.

The design of our public spaces plays a major role in facilitating these connections. However, we often struggle to invest in quality designs that make places inviting, comfortable, and safe. Many of our parks sit as empty lawns except for a few old pieces of playground equipment. Our sidewalks are incomplete and unconnected. Many of our city streets are not designed at a human-scale, but as thoroughfares for when we are at our most disconnected; traveling at speeds of 35 and above–all but oblivious to our surroundings. In the normal course of our days, when there isn’t a major event or happening to bring us together, we hole-up. We invest heavily in our lives away from the public realm to make them comfortable, buy don’t always apply that same logic to investing in community.

Community is not static. It is a process that develops as the flow of people and ideas tangle and interweave with a place. When these exchanges are positive, the outcome is increased social capital with payoffs measured within the community by things like safer streets, stronger neighborhoods, more resilient economies, and healthier people. Researchers are now documenting direct links to people’s health and the quality of the neighborhood where they live.Places that invite daily activity, and the community cohesion that occurs when we interact with others, lead to more expansive social networks.

These networks are what we rely on to discover new economic opportunities and to navigate social and political affairs. The authors Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman titled a book after these interactions. “Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter…But Really Do” explores the often overlooked payback from interactions we have with people on a daily basis–if only for a moment. As they write, “we might like to think of ourselves as independent agents, marching through life to our own iPod soundtrack, but our relationships propel us as well.”

The buzzword of late pertaining to this investment is Placemaking. It is often narrowly introduced as an economic tool rather than a social tool—but the two aren’t exclusive. There remains a critical role for public-private partnerships to invest in public spaces for the purpose of encouraging people to serendipitously come together. One crowd-sourced definition of Placemaking recently published by Project for Public Spaces, a leading Placemaking organization, was “taking back the public realm to create memorable, beautiful, vibrant places where people want to gather and participate in the community.”

Placemaking is investing in the public realm to encourage effortless, easygoing, unhurried interactions. Places like pocket parks, trailheads, and dog-parks where civic life can occur without being centered on consumption or entertainment. Places where happiness is pursued through the joy of being an active and socializing contributor to the community experience.

Luckily, Traverse City and the surrounding region are well positioned to embrace this type of investment. We already have Placemaking projects in the making, both big and small from Suttons Bay to Elk Rapids. As we proceed, let us focus on the underlying principle of connecting people.


  1. bobotwell
    May 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Nicely said Gary. Laura and I are now spending most of our time out in the public realm. It is hard to tell from the maps which towns will be nice to hang out in, but when we get there, we know. Traverse City has many of the right components, and things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

  2. May 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you, Bob. I imagine you are experiencing public spaces in a completely different way as you traverse the country on bicycles. In a way, those little towns become your home for the time that you are there. I’m looking forward to hearing your stories.

    For those who don’t know, Bob and Laura have been living on bicycles for the past year as they make their way around the country. They are blogging about it at Laura and Bob’s Continental Cruise. They likely have by now passed the 8,000 mile mark–wow!

  3. Nancy Griesinger
    May 1, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    This piece is well written regarding community Gary, and I admire people like Bob and Laura who have the energy and desire to visit towns via bicycles, but there are also community members like myself, who, after a long day of smiling and chatting with folks, simply needs the quiet lapping of the waves on shore, and the tranquil beauty of our Bay to soothe her nerves. Better than a martini Gary, and as therapeutic as yoga.

    Let us not lose sight of the fact that “community” is made up of all types of personalities…those who embrace excitement and entertainment, and those who do not.

    Community is at its best, in my humble opinion, when it grows naturally, or organically to be “politically correct.” If we “plan” and “placemake” too much, it begins to feel like manipulation.

    I want to design my own free time, and when I feel like live music and a beer, I’ll go to a bar, and when I do not, I hope there will always be simply “The Bay.”

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