Healing the Nation’s Wounds With Parks and Libraries

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There’s this new park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it’s amazing. I went on a weekday afternoon last month expecting calm and quiet and instead encountered thousands of people, mostly families with kids. It was the first public-school break since the Gathering Place, as the park is called, had opened Sept. 8, and it seemed like everybody in and around Tulsa had decided to check it out.

My fellow park visitors, while skewed toward youth, were of many different ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, sizes, hairstyles, physical capabilities and, one assumes, political views (the one open expression of which that I noticed was a grandmother wearing an “Adorable Deplorable” sweatshirt). They all seemed impressed, and mostly delighted. I certainly was. I texted my wife photos of a couple of the huge and fanciful play structures, and she said they reminded her of the justly famous Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground in London, where we used to take our son when he was little. “Except about 10 times bigger,” I responded. There are also ponds, meadows, a boathouse/lodge/cabana with panoramic views of downtown Tulsa and the Arkansas River, a walkway over Tulsa’s Riverside Drive and along the river, circuits for bicyclists and skateboarders, and lots more.

Healing the Nation’s Wounds With Parks and Libraries

Given that I had a copy of a book called “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life” sitting on the back seat of my car, I couldn’t help but think of the Gathering Place in those terms. Same went for some of the other great public spaces created in the past decade or two — the park-over-the-freeway (Klyde Warren Park) in Dallas; the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; the Scioto Mile in Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Canal — that I encountered while driving across the country and back this fall.

Now that I’ve read the (fascinating) book and talked to its author, New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, I know that he mainly had more mundane palaces in mind. The term “palaces for the people” has been used over the years to describe everything from movie theaters to art museums to prefab houses in post-World War II Britain to the vaulted tile ceilings built by Guastavino Co., but Klinenberg identifies it chiefly with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and the thousands of public libraries he built. Libraries are at the core of the book: spaces where everybody is welcome, knowledge is free and interaction with others is encouraged. “One thing I observed going to libraries is they’re serving all these essential functions because there are gaping holes in the safety net,” Klinenberg told me when I paid him a visit at his NYU office last week. “They work incredibly well despite the fact that we haven’t put enough resources into them.”

Other forms of social infrastructure discussed in his book include vacant lots in Philadelphia turned into mini-parks by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (with remarkable effects on local crime rates), churches, community gardens, swimming pools, athletic fields, sidewalks and even coffee shops (which have also been found to reduce some kinds of neighborhood crime). The common theme is that they are physical structures that encourage social interaction. This isn’t true of all infrastructure! Sewers are essential but not social, for example. “Once you have an idea of something like social infrastructure,” Klinenberg said, “you can start to see that places like libraries and parks are as vital to the functioning of our society as roads and airports.”

In the U.S., more public infrastructure dollars go to highways — $177 billion in 2017 — than anything else. While roads are clearly of great economic value and enable people to get to places where they can interact with others, they tend to be quite isolating while you’re driving on them. The shift to private cars as the country’s chief means of transportation has been tough on social infrastructure, thus likely unleashing some of the inequality, polarization and decline of civic life that Klinenberg laments.

The evening before I visited Tulsa, I went for a stroll along Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Canal, modeled shamelessly but effectively on San Antonio’s famous River Walk, with Mick Cornett, who stepped down in April after 14 years as the city’s mayor.“We all live in cities we didn’t build,” he mused near the end of our walk. “Going forward, let’s think about how to do it and create cities around people instead of cars. That doesn’t happen organically.”

In Oklahoma City, it began to happen because one of Cornett’s predecessors persuaded voters in 1993 to approve a sales-tax increase to pay for the canal and other downtown improvements. In Tulsa, the impetus and the bulk of the funding for the Gathering Place came from a local philanthropist, George Kaiser, who owns Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. and a majority stake in BOK Financial Corp., among other things, and currently ranks 119th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

An obvious danger is that these investments in social infrastructure stop at flagship parks, museums, arenas and revitalized downtowns. As Klinenberg put it, “most philanthropists want to give to the big new shiny thing in the center of the city.” But in Tulsa, Kaiser has actually steered most of his giving toward unglamorous causes like early-childhood education, parent engagement, community health and criminal-justice reform. In Oklahoma City, meanwhile, the sales tax for downtown revitalization was followed by a voter-approved extension to pay for public-school improvements. And Klinenberg makes much in his book of the 2-to-1 2010 referendum vote in Columbus, a city that has invested a lot in high-profile downtown improvements, to increase property taxes to avert public-library cutbacks in the wake of the Great Recession. Maybe investment in big, shiny palaces for the people actually goes hand in hand with public investment of a more quotidian sort.

At least, it can. Cornett also has a new book, “The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros,” co-authored with urban-policy consultant Jayson White, that engagingly describes how places like Oklahoma City can foster civic engagement and investment in, well, social infrastructure (he doesn’t use the term, but it’s definitely what he’s talking about) in ways that bigger cities on the coasts might find difficult. In their recent bestseller “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” James and Deborah Fallows tell many similar stories (and also laud that Columbus library tax). The notion that cities and towns are uniquely placed to be sources of political innovation and societal renewal is a frequently voiced one these days, in part because there seems to be so little chance of such a coming-together at the national level. So yes, enjoy your spectacular new palace, people of Tulsa. Let’s hope it leads to the construction of lots of smaller ones.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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