Two colleagues of mine recently shared stories that beautifully illustrate the idea of ambient or integrative civic engagement.
A divider built on the road through a small Indian town inadvertently prevented residents from crossing, forcing them to walk miles out of the way. Each year, neighbors would dismantle a section of the divider to allow people to cross. And each each, road crews would notice the damage and repair the divider. The cycle seems to be due not to opposition, but a lack of communication.
The community could probably write a letter, craft petition, or elect an official to make note of their need and convey it to road planners. This is the type of communication officials would likely expect and respect. What if they were open to more ambient forms of communication? What if they took their cues from the use of roads by both cars and pedestrians?
A college in Boston recently added a new campus extension. The planners sought a student-centered approach to the design of walkways across the courtyard. They could have began with a community survey, followed by design feedback, iteration, and a vote for approval. Instead, they started a new semester without pathways, allowing students to form natural connections between buildings, carved in the grass through use and experience. The results were later paved, not based on surveys and other representations of the public’s thought and opinion, but rather on ambient student input in the form of experience and action.