Friday, July 17, 2009

Commons Making LA Neighborhoods Safer

Last week, the NYT had a great article showing how an investment in public space is reducing gang violence and increasing the sense of community in LA’s neighborhoods.

Antigang outreach workers created the Summer Night Lights program last year. Through private donations matched by the city, the program has financed lights, sports leagues, disc jockeys and food to encourage residents to simply hang out in the parks in their own neighborhoods.

The best quote of the article comes from the minister who leads the program, Rev. Jeff Parr:
“These neighborhoods with gang problems don’t have a lot of assets. But there is a school, a park and a rec center. Those are public assets. Let’s use those to create social connections that replace gangs.”

Identifying public assets in communities that are largely portrayed in the media as lacking any public value represents a huge shift in how low-income communities of color are perceived. And it’s a necessary shift for advocates of the value of public space and commons-based thinking, because too often the only examples of the commons exist in privileged contexts. This Summer Night Lights program points to the potential of commons-based thinking to transform all communities and relationships.

It is especially inspiring that the program is welcoming known gang members as members of the community. The objective of the program could have just been to reclaim public spaces from gang violence (through heavy police presence), but instead the program is working to restore relationships between gang members and the neighborhoods they live in. By opening the program up to everyone in the community – even the so-called trouble-makers – it offers the hope of inclusion leading to peace. It also acknowledges that the lack of freedom and safety in neighborhoods has created a vicious cycle that increases both violence and gang membership.

If the park program continues and becomes a model that’s replicated in other urban neighborhoods, it could pave the way for new chances for young people. The lack of safe public spaces has had major implications for young people, from obesity to crime rates. Giving kids the chance to be outside builds connections between young people and their parents and as one youth interviewed for the article put it “you meet more friends here [than by] having nothing better to do and getting in trouble.”

We need to create more opportunities, like the Summer Night Lights Program, for young people in our communities to pursue the better thing to do.

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