Shared public spaces key to healthy communities, Verdant conference speaker says

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Eric Klinenberg, during his keynote speech, addressed the importance of shared spaces in society.

In our increasingly divided society, shared community spaces play a key role in promoting a healthy community. That was the message delivered by keynote speaker Eric Klinenberg during the Verdant Health Commission’s 4th annual Healthier Community Conference in Lynnwood Feb. 21.

The annual conference brings together those who serve South Snohomish County residents’ needs, with a focus on health, wellness and community building.

Klinenberg, a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, said that public spaces like parks, libraries and places of worship give people the opportunity to learn more about people of other socioeconomic groups. Klinenberg said the future of a healthy society relies on these shared places.

“If we start from this common point, incredible things happen,” he said.

As people become more polarized in their views on current events and politics, it is important for these places to continue to be a part of society, Klinenberg said.

In public places, people can gather, linger and make friends, creating a social infrastructure, he added.

“When a neighborhood is healthy, it flourishes; it’s when it is neglected, community members have to fend for themselves,” Klinenberg said

As technology advances and dominates most people’s attention, Klinenberg said he still sees the effects of people interacting in shared spaces. This is evident in places like parks, where parents will interact with each other while their children play, building on the social infrastructure.

“First it’s a stranger and because you see that person over and over again you start up a conversation,” he said.

The idea of social infrastructure is also necessary in times of crisis, as it makes everyone aware of who may be in more need than others. As an example, Klinenberg pointed to the 1995 Chicago heat wave, which killed more than 700 people — many of whom were from impoverished neighborhoods. Klinenberg said knowing which parts of the community would need help in the wake of an event like a heat wave is “politically important, because it tells us how we should mobilize resources.”

To ensure the continued growth and health of society, the remaining shared spaces should not be taken for granted and need to be preserved for the next generation. He used the example of a library – which offers free services to all people across all socioeconomic groups – and added that such a service is not something society could get back if it is lost.

“That idea is so out of sync with the spirit of our time,” he said. “And we have inherited these things — this concept of the common good.”

A library itself offers a sense of community, Klinenberg said. A child with his or her first library card will enjoy a book and return it for another child to take home and enjoy, giving children their first experience as part of society.

“You start to feel that sense of belonging, of freedom and belonging,” he said. “But also the responsibility of taking care of something that’s bigger than yourself.”

The Lynnwood-based Verdant Health Commission was created by Public Hospital District, No. 2 when it leased the former Stevens Hospital in Edmonds to Swedish Health Services in 2010. With that change, the Verdant Health Commission began its work to improve the health of South Snohomish County communities through education and prevention. Much of Verdant’s funding comes from the Swedish Edmonds lease.

— Story and photo by Cody Sexton

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