Designing the New American Town Square
by Tracy Russ, SOLID
Like the town square of old, new American town squares are being designed and built across our nation that bring the best of empowering digital connectivity together with opportunities for people to meet and connect with each other in real time and real spaces.
These new civic spaces resemble the town squares of old in that they are places where Americans can come together to articulate community values, make decisions based on shared priorities, and allocate resources (tax dollars, private investments, grants) based on those priorities. But they can be so much more.
Smart cities and nations harness the power of their people to innovate and move ahead. To stay competitive today and tomorrow, communities in the 21st century must invest in designing and creating these virtual and physical civic spaces, our new American town squares, as they are about new arenas, schools, libraries, parks and special use districts.
The rise of digital connectivity, social media and broadband speed access all hold great promise as tools to build and use fantastic civic space. Physical spaces where people can meet each other face to face abound. But in most US cities, leaders and citizens who attempt to engage in public discourse and crafting of policy still lack the systems and civic infrastructure to put these well-meaning and well-intended energies to work efficiently.
One vital part of that civic infrastructure is digital broadband access, which we still seem to think about as a nice “add-on” into communities instead of thinking about it as basic infrastructure necessary for living in the 21st century. We wouldn’t think about opening up new areas for development in our local communities without designing and building infrastructure that is basic to growth and sustainability like streets, sidewalks, bike paths, access to power and water. But the time has come for digital and broadband access to be placed at that same level of priority – as infrastructure – instead of an “add-on.”
There is a frustrating but closeable gap in our nation between individual human capacity, social capital, and our own systems for decision-making – our civic space needs are greater than our current capacity.
To make the most of our potential as people, as communities and as a nation, we must design and build our way out of this civic deficit and get active about building the new American town square at the national level and in our communities.
Architect William McDonough tells us that,“design is the first signal of intent.” Let’s show our intention to bring the vibrant ideals of America forward into the 21st century by designing and creating fantastic civic space suited to our new millennium ambitions, hopes and challenges.