Building trust one park bench at a time

"Have a Seat" park bench in NW Indiana

Could a park bench in a front yard be a catalyst for trust among neighbors? Seems so, as one community organization is finding out.

A neighborhood is the building block of a metropolitan region and a barometer of local (and regional) health. Stitched together by a common geography, neighborhoods reflect the social capital of their residents, the investment of their city, and—not to be overlooked—the trust of their residents. The latter is fundamental to a well-functioning neighborhood and metro region. Without trust among neighbors, cooperation is nigh impossible and self-interest begins to dominate. Gradually, the lack of trust among neighbors and citizens chips away at the mortar of society, and social ills and fill in the cracks.

Trust in the United States is a mixed bag. When a Pew survey in 2007 asked Americans, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” 45% said most can be trusted, while 50% were skeptics. Urban dwellers were among the least trusting. One reason for this might be because urban areas are home to more low-income families and more minorities–and these two groups are among the least trusting as well. The lack of trust is not surprising, given that a sense of vulnerability and constant strife is not exactly conducive to trust ing one’s fellow man. Yet even after controlling for these two demographic factors, urban areas remained skeptical of their neighbors.

What gives? Is the anonymity of urban areas at fault? Or the opposite: does the sheen of humanity wear dim when forced to compete for space on a subway car or come to near blows over a restaurant seat by the open window? The Pew survey does find a slight tendency for levels of social trust to fall as population density  rises. But whatever the reason, compared with their rural counterparts, many urban neighborhoods are not exactly bastions of trust.

Enter, the park bench.

Last summer, Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit community development group in northwest Indiana, put a park bench in the front yards of 22 homes in East Chicago (pop. 29,832), with a sign “please have a seat.” East Chicago has struggled with higher crime rates and population loss over the last few decades as its job base in steel manufacturing eroded.  But with a $1,000 investment for  the small concrete pad, a bench, and a planter, East Chicago residents suddenly had a reason to sit down on their way home and chat with the homeowner, forming friendships and strengthening community bonds. As Keith Speaks of Neighborhoods, Inc., told the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago:

  • Participants report that neighbors, walkers, schoolchildren, dogwalkers and other passersby enjoy resting and socializing on the benches on a regular basis.
  • Participants appreciate how the bench serves as an “ice-breaker” to meet previously unknown neighbors by inviting them to sit on the bench.
  • Several bench recipients were pleased they could use the bench on Halloween to hand out candy.
  • And there have been no reports of any abuse to the bench or complaints about its appearance.

With just that small effort, the community is rebuilding trust. The program is now expanding to East Chicago, Miller Beach, Hammond and Highland, Indiana, with $21,500 in support from the Legacy Foundation, through grants from the Lake County Community Fund and John S. and James L. Knight Fund.

Although it’s not a panacea for the larger, structural problems, such as lack of jobs, social isolation, poor housing stock, and faltering schools, that erode trust in many urban neighborhoods the first place, it’s a start. Sometimes the big problems seem too insurmountable. Taking a seat and chatting with a neighborhood might just fuel a movement, one park bench at a time.

2 Responses to Building trust one park bench at a time

  1. Frank says:

    How is the public bench program going? I would like to do something similar in my neighborhood, and am curious about the longer term results of this project. We are in colorado springs, co. thanks for any information you can provide.