American Parks Can Help Promote Democracy

American Democracy

Democracy Examined

American Parks Can Help Promote Democracy

In a previous newsletter, we discussed parks as a partial solution to the epidemic of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some cities are taking steps (like building fire pits) to boost the quality and comfort of outdoor spaces, particularly during the cold, winter months.

But there’s a separate, albeit related, reason to build parks. In addition to combating loneliness, parks can also play a role in boosting American democracy, argues Matthew Clarke, Executive Director for the non-profit Design Trust for Public Space.

According to Clarke, in an America “fractured along race, class, density, and creed,” parks provide a common space that can promote the country’s sense of community, civic engagement, and overall health. Importantly, parks can help remove us from our social media bubbles where we rarely interact with people of different backgrounds. 

Research supports the idea that parks assist democracy. A 2014 study using survey data from Portland, Oregon found that participation in park programs may have a “snowball effect,” driving citizens to volunteer in other ways and become more civically engaged. A 2016 study of public parks in New Orleans found that they strengthened social connections between people from different groups, and that racial minorities and the elderly felt particularly empowered during visits.

What are other possible related solutions?

Parks don’t have to be in person to be effective at boosting civic engagement. To combat the divisive nature of social media, some are proposing digital parks or libraries that could oppose the echo chambers often found on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Dubbed “digital public infrastructure” by scholar Ethan Zuckerman, the idea is that an online space could bring people together instead of creating the social divisions that permeate traditional social media platforms.

Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen and activist Eli Pariser argue that in order to be successful, unlike most social media platforms of today, digital parks should prioritize community-building rather profit-maximization. One long-term example of a successful digital forum is Vermont’s ‘Front Porch Forum,’ a moderated email chain that two-thirds of Vermonters use to engage in community discussions. 

In a country plagued by the pandemics of loneliness, polarization, and disinformation (as well as illness, of course), it is now more vital than ever to build communities both online and offline: parks are one step in that process.