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Civic Muscle 2

Matt Galloway spoke with the CBC's Mary Wiens. This morning she tells us the story of an historic city park and the citizens who set about to rescue it.
Listen audio (runs 6:42)


It's the kind of conversation that's happening not just in Toronto, but in cities across North America, as citizens find that the biggest obstacle to city-building is often their own civic institutions.
Harry Boyte is co-founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Michigan.  He also chaired the civic engagement committee for President Obama's election campaign.

He says municipal governments across North America have adopted what is sometimes called a corporate model of governance, in which civil servants are the experts, providing citizens with services.

But Boyte believes the root of the problem goes much deeper, and that civic engagement has atrophied in recent decades because of a "global consumer culture".

"It's a culture," says Boyte, "that produces a me-first attitude and a kind of whiny-ness, a grasping-ness -- instead of a sense that WE'RE building this place."

Boyte says young people, in particular, are looking for a bigger role as citizens -- a hunger reflected in Public Achievement, a campaign he helped create in which teams of young people build a project around a public issue - anything from recycling to reducing crime in their community to building a skateboard park.  The initiative has now spread to 23 countries yielding a wealth of data on civic engagement. 

"We see a real hunger among young people to feel consequential," says Boyte. "Young people grow up in an environment in which they're entertained or sold things as consumers or filled up with knowledge.   But there are not many opportunities for young people to be challenged to be productive or to be consequential or to make an impact. "

The CBC's Mary Wiens spoke to Harry Boyte. 

You can hear more of that conversation here. audio (runs 9:33)

Elinor Ostrom's groundbreaking research into the role of citizens in maintaining public resources won her the Nobel prize for economics last year.  In her book, "Governing the Commons," Ostrom argues that the best way to manage public resources - from parks to fisheries to forests -- is not through privatization or by government, but through citizens, who are given significant control over their particular piece of "the commons".

Boyte, a colleague of Ostrom's at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, says Ostrom's research underlines the importance of what he calls "civic muscle".

"Civic work of that kind," says Boyte, "is sustained and it's consequential and it's hard and it takes time and it develops civic muscle." 

And, says Boyte, there is nothing sentimental about this view of citizenship. 

"When people learn how to work with people who are not in their friendship circle or in their family -- people who are different, who have a different political ideology, or a different religious orientation, or a different income - that's work.  It means learning to deal with people who make you uncomfortable, learning to see different points of view, learning that people who are very different have something to contribute to a community project.  So there is a growth involved, a development, a public growth involved in that process.