April 12, 2017

Editorial: Want to make Worcester a better place? Step up by stepping out

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Elm Park Bridge

Sun Staff/The Worcester Sun

The Myra Hiatt Kraft Memorial Footbridge at Elm Park

Volunteers have done their part and Mother Nature is doing hers. If you live, work or play in Worcester, the rest is up to you.

The Regional Environmental Council’s 28th annual Earth Day cleanup last Saturday saw more than 1,000 volunteers clear 50 tons of trash from more than 60 public spaces throughout the city. Blue sky and above-average temperatures earlier this week sent an unmistakable signal that spring is here. Thus, it’s as good a time as any to remind people that the responsibility of making Worcester a better city and community ultimately falls to its residents.

In other words, now is the time for you to step up by stepping out.

There are personal benefits of enjoying the more than 60 parks and playgrounds throughout the city, to be sure. Better physical health and mental well-being top the list.

Lesser known are the civic benefits.

There was a school of thought that creating public spaces such as parks was simply creating havens for crime. In a 2011 article “The role of neighborhood parks as crime generators,” authors wrote “neighborhood parks meet the criteria for being crime generators; they act as general gathering places for people who would probably not congregate in the neighborhood if the park was not there and who subsequently end up being involved in crimes at or near the park. This effect is amplified when the people attracted are also part of an age group (that is, juveniles) which is more likely to be involved in delinquent or criminal behavior.”

In the same article, the authors note: “It is also theoretically possible that neighborhood parks serve as places of reduced crime; ones that may actually increase the safety of the surrounding area. …  It is conceivable then that neighborhood parks may attract mainly families and others only interested in recreation and relaxation pursuits. This increase in people due to the presence of the park may help keep both the park and surrounding neighborhood safer due to added informal control and surveillance.”

Considered together, these viewpoints do offer a third theory of public parks, one to which we subscribe: Use them or lose them.

Aside from the increased social ties made and enhanced by congregating in parks, increased use of all public spaces leads to what noted urban theorist Jane Jacobs said increased “eyes on the street” in her 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

“You can’t make people watch streets they do not want to watch,” she wrote. “Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim, but in real life it is not grim. The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and most enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.”

While Jacobs was writing about safe streets, we believe the same holds true for public parks. The best policing, the best deterrent for bad behavior, is done when those who enjoy the space outnumber those with bad or nefarious intent.

In this light, a recent communication from City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. is noteworthy and laudable.

In a March 14 memo, Augustus updated City Council on his plan to “collaborate and create 100 days of events and programming on the Worcester Common to be held in 2017.”

“To that end,” he wrote, “we have solicited feedback and ideas from local businesses, developers, nonprofit organizations, and the community at large to launch the #Worcester100 initiative.”

Leveraging social media, traditional media, the city’s electronic newsletter, crowdsourcing and focus groups, the city has already gathered more than 100 ideas. This is addition to the recent tradition of the Out to Lunch Summer Concert Series and Farmers Market.

Among the promising ideas proposed for the Common this year are: caricature artist event, a chamber orchestra concert, a chili and chowder festival, tournaments featuring backyard games such as Kan Jam and Cornhole, broadcasting sporting events such as a Red Sox or Patriots game or World Cup qualifier, and a third installment of stART, stART on the Common.

In addition, we would advocate for a return of the Movies on the Common Series, which lasted four years but has not run since 2014.

All of that is just downtown. Groups of civically minded people all over the city are already busy working and planning to make Worcester’s green and blue spaces welcoming and accessible. Among the most notable is Park Spirit, which holds its summer concert series at Elm Park and Newton Hill in addition to acting as shepherds of the East-West Trail.

Spring is upon us. As you ponder all the things you can do, take a moment to consider the good that can be done simply by choosing to spend some time together in public.

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