John Taylor: Public spaces are like blank canvases; can be used to bring people together

Galesburg Register-Mail
The Back Road Music Fest returned to Galva after a 1 year absence, featuring Randy Houser, Tracy Lawrence and Travis Denning on Aug. 14, 2021.

How can public spaces strengthen communities and spark economic grow? I was recently asked this question and, while I managed to come up with a response, I felt a lot was left unsaid. I also feel like this is a very timely topic as we begin to imagine what life post-pandemic could look like. Now is a perfect time to create a new future.  

I feel like a little background is necessary; if you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I am not sure I could have made some of the connections necessary to understand the impact public spaces can have. Believe it or not, my interest in developing public spaces began at my home. In 2014, I decided to begin hosting at least one concert a week, on average, at our home in Cambridge and have continued this on to this day.

John Taylor

My intentions with this are very simple: to provide a place for people of all walks of life to come together to share the experience of live music. From the start, I began to see lives change, mine included, just from the simple act of people coming together. As time has gone on, I have continued to push to bring these experiences to more people and part of this has been working to develop public spaces for people to gather.  

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I now see public spaces as one of the most important assets of a community. But why? Public spaces, when developed and used, increase quality of life. They have the power to draw in people, not only those in the immediate community, but tourists as well. Successful public spaces are inclusive, creating a social space for everyone, regardless of their circumstances, to participate. This fosters social and economic ties, while simultaneously providing a source of entertainment and stress relief.

Social events, such as concerts, in a public space are a great way for people, who may otherwise never interact, to meet and it is through this meeting and the sharing of experiences in which a common thread can be formed. While there may be many things which separate any two people — race, religion, politics, economic status, age, physical and mental limitations — experiences shared in a public space are one thing these people have in common and can, over time, soften the things that might normally keep us divided. Especially over time, this creates an intricate connection between the space and the people who gather there, making communities more accepting of new and different ideas and cultures, closer-knit, and more resilient. 

Beyond the social benefits, regularly hosting events in public spaces can be a catalyst for economic growth. These events can provide opportunities for those in the community and surrounding areas a space to launch and grow businesses. Of course, these events can also attract tourists, who are likely to inject some money into the local economy during their visit. Eventually, some of these tourists just might become residents.  

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All of this leads to a better quality of life.  

While all of this sounds grand, I have learned that nothing happens without a plan and investment, of both time and resources, from the community is needed to fully realize this dream. Governing bodies and public agencies, while important partners in this work, are stretched thin and not well-equipped to lead this sort of change.

Throughout the area there are many under-used public spaces, many of which were created with the best intentions, but without a plan for utilizing them. To me, these spaces are like blank canvases waiting to be made into beautiful works of art. For anyone reading this, I encourage you to dream about what you would like to see for your neighborhood and then get started. While it might seem daunting at first, results will come as long as you put in the work. 

John Taylor is president of Levitt AMP Galva Music Series. He lives in Cambridge, Illinois, with his family.