With a one-time investment in a generation in Infrastructure just passed by Congress and while awaiting the President’s signature, we have a unique opportunity to ensure that these dollars are spent in a participatory and inclusive manner, bringing Americans Beyond Differences together to revitalize the practice of democracy .
In addition to our roads, tunnels and bridges, we can allocate these dollars through channels that also strengthen our civic infrastructure. Ultimately, the goal is to use federal infrastructure funds in ways that also support our democracy.
Let’s rebuild our communities in a way that simultaneously enhances the physical assets of our communities while strengthening our civic muscles. This dual purpose will allow people to come together to tackle public problems with creative solutions we desperately need in many communities, which are making strides toward geographic, social, economic and other forms of equity.
Now is the time to think about the people, places and practices of democracy. One of the challenges facing the federal government now is to ensure that these physical infrastructure dollars are distributed in a way that also supports the much needed strengthening of the connective tissue for civic infrastructure. Successful implementation of the infrastructure bill requires investing in all communities – rural, urban and suburban – as well as working to involve people from all ideological and political backgrounds to the people and places that can throw the foundations for a more inclusive and prosperous democracy.
What is civic infrastructure and why is it important for communities?
In its final report, âOur Common Goal: Reinvent American Democracy for the 21st CenturyThe Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences called for the creation of a Confidence in civic infrastructure that would support the massive and sustained investment in local communities necessary for a resilient American democracy. The multi-stakeholder commission launched in 2018 to better understand and address the challenges Americans face in realizing their potential as active participants in the Autonomous Communities.
According to a 2015 Aspen Institute Report, âCivic infrastructureâ includes a âsystem of organizations and relationships – with the explicit purpose of maximizing public participation and agency in the service of better public problem solvingâ. This system includes everything from physical spaces where people congregate, to sources of information for developing civic knowledge, and digital opportunities for engaging in government and civic life.
The Infrastructure Bill offers the opportunity to operationalize what we have learned that is already working in communities to simultaneously build our physical and civic infrastructure. Three lessons with examples below illustrate how civic infrastructure in action deepened democracy:
First, harness people’s hyper-local expertise to effectively organize care for each other and collectively solve problems in communities.
For example, self-help networks, where members of a community take responsibility for the well-being of their neighbors and themselves, increased dramatically during the pandemic. The non-profit town hall project created the Support center to follow the Self-Help Network, which grew from 50 groups in March 2020 to more than 800 in 48 states by May 2020. That number continues to grow to well over 1,000.
Second, invest in the physical spaces that support thriving and inclusive communities across the country.
For example, Reinventing civic commons, a collaboration of national foundations and local civic leaders, has worked at sites across the country, reinventing civic assets to counter trends of growing economic segregation, social isolation and mistrust. In Memphis, Tenn. The closure of high-speed traffic lanes created new park spaces along a river that allowed people to take advantage of new destinations for fitness and outdoor play. Both of these examples build on work already done to strengthen civic infrastructure in our communities.
Finally, bring people together across geographic, ideological and partisan divisions.
In Kentucky, the Kentucky Rural-Urban Interchange (RUX) is a creative leadership program designed to build confidence, develop social capital, and unite Kentuckians across cultural, racial, economic and geographic divisions. The program brings together 75 leaders in fields such as business, health, community development and the arts to forge connections that ultimately help serve Kentuckians better. The three values ââof the program are people, place and partnership.
We already have examples across the country of well-made civic infrastructure. While no single intervention is a panacea for the ills of American democracy today, we must build on what we have learned from those interventions to better leverage our unique investment. We must continue to build on the existing momentum of increasing civic power, ensuring not only that dollars are allocated equitably, but also through a process that facilitates the human connection that under- tends our democracy. Among significant investments for transit, rail, broadband and other public goods, we must also recognize the opportunity to improve quality of life through investments and civic processes that build a more flourishing and resilient democracy.
Hollie Russon Gilman, Ph.D., is a member of New America and Colombia Global Projects. She is co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Age of InequalityâAnd served in the Obama administration as the White House’s Open Government and Innovation Advisor.
Darshan Goux, Ph.D., is the Director of American Institutions, Society, and Public Good at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Elizabeth Youngling, Ph.D. is the Carl & Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Fellow for American Institutions, Society, and Public Good at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.