- What are available spaces in our community?
- How can we use them creatively?
- How do we pay for them?
- And how do we make sure people know about them?
Whether or not these questions get answered, it's empowering to see just how many different kinds of people are in this room, seated at little round tables, eating cookies and talking about the public realm. At one breakout table, I was seated between a white woman and an African woman. We were all basically asked where do people hang out. The first answers were pretty unanimous: Churches. Schools. The grocery store. And then they diverged.
The white woman said backyards. "I know places where people's backyards open to one another and they can gather in the space between," she said. I assumed she must live in a house. The African woman said Starbucks. "Whenever I want to find someone," she said, "I go to the Starbucks in Downtown Silver Spring. I see my friends there, I see my countrymen there. People go just to spend time." I immediately guessed she must live in an apartment.
Why? The different ways these two women interact with other people isn't a cultural one. It's an urban-suburban one. On my cul-de-sac, where the backyards do bleed into one another, Starbucks is almost irrelevant because we can fire up the grill and meet the neighbors right here. (We haven't, not for ten years, but the space remains.)
But if you don't have a yard, or any private space where you can entertain other people, you become reliant on the public realm - be it legally public spaces, like the new Civic Building, or private ones, like a coffee shop - to meet and engage with others. And we have to make sure these places can be created and retained, not just Downtown, but throughout East County.
This is a conversation we can have in a place like Downtown Silver Spring, where I think the built form - one organized around connecting streets and a mix of building types and uses - literally forces people to interact with each other and make do. But it's not yet a conversation you can have in White Oak or Burtonsville or Calverton, where I live, because they were built to separate.
Where I live, shops don't mingle with offices, apartments don't mix with houses, and public space generally means programmed space, like playing fields, schools, or even parking lots. There are very few places where people can run into each other. The Amish Market was one, of course, but it's gone.
And as a result, I think a lot of understanding between different cultures/interests/lifestyles/whatever is completely lost. People just don't have to interact with people who are different from them. They can afford to move or put their kids in private school or simply shut themselves in their car or house. After all, it was at the charrette in Burtonsville two years ago where people complained that a public green there would "bring undesirables."
A strong community is one where people have opportunities to engage one another. It's not as simple as holding a meeting at the community center. It's building a place, from the very ground up, around the idea that people will interact with each other regardless of color, class or status. To that end, a lot of IMPACT Silver Spring's work in "creating community space" has already been done for them. But the work they do to advance that idea is noble, and I'm proud to have them in our community.