My favorite way to experience a community is to walk it, and for no other reason than it brings me great joy. It centers me. As I've had kids, advanced in my career, and gotten older, my life has become more structured, scheduled, and experienced through technology. As my feet wander, my mind wanders, too. What is it about great neighborhoods and public spaces that make us want to stay?  Why do they make us happy and draw us in? Ellen Cutter

I believe that great neighborhoods and public spaces must strike the right balance along two continuums. First, there must be vibrancy and opportunities for social connection, but also a sense of personal privacy and intimacy. Second, they must provide a level of efficiency and utility, but also support investments that might otherwise be dismissed as frivolous or unneeded.

At the intersection of public spaces, frivolousness, and intimacy — for me — is great joy and delight. Here are some examples:
  • The sunscreen dispensers at Promenade Park: I have never in my life seen one of these, and as I slathered sunblock on my daughters last summer, I mumbled a word of thanks to whoever figured out how to keep those in the budget.
  • Alleyway and sidewalk patios: Some of my most cherished memories in Fort Wayne are sitting outside with my husband, at a neighborhood joint, catching up over a cup of coffee or a beer.
  • Walking to work: I’m alone with my thoughts, within a public space, and transporting myself much slower than a car would otherwise transport me. It’s my favorite indulgence.
  • Fort Wayne Rocks: It’s silly. There’s a Facebook page where people can post photos of found hand-painted rocks that have been hidden around the city. To find a painted rock is such an unexpected surprise, you snap a photo, and then you let it go and wait for someone else to find it.
  • Public art: It’s not only beautiful, but it makes us feel and think and imagine and consider possibilities.
  • Little Free Libraries: Whenever I see one, I stop to look what’s available. Our public libraries do an amazing job. Little Free Libraries are like pop-up book clubs, usually with offbeat reads.

I am an urban planner and researcher by trade, and it took me nearly two decades to understand the magic in the dynamic between what is public, frivolous, and intimate.

When considering what our community should strive to be 20 years in the future, how often do we consider how our neighborhoods and public spaces could make us happier, more delighted? 

We are starting to trust that instinct more as a city, and I hope it grows in the coming years.

Happy now?
The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index scores and ranks 186 communities across the nation according to five elements of well-being. Over the last decade, the national Well-Being Index score declined from 66.5 to 61.2. In short, we are finding it more difficult to manage our health, money, and relationships. Fort Wayne ranked 153 (of 186 communities) with a score of 60.3, and our community’s ranking in the five elements of well-being are outlined below.
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security (#108)
  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals (#120)
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily (#134)
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life (#184)
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community (#141)
Our public, community life has a tremendous impact on personal well-being. Things like being able to bike or kayak or ice skate; having somewhere to get a cup of coffee with a friend; lighting and appropriate density and relationships with neighbors that make us feel safe; liking and having pride in your neighborhood and your city. So many small considerations can have an incremental impact on our well-being, either in a positive or negative way. How can our pubic investment make a difference in the private lives of our friends and neighbors?  It is with this backdrop in mind that I’d suggest: how our public spaces take shape in Fort Wayne could play a role in making us happier. Certainly, it’s something to consider.

Managing Public Spaces
In "The Tragedy of the Commons,” economist Garret Hardin underscores that there are a whole set of societal issues for which there are no technical solutions.[1]  When so much of our economy today is based on “disrupting” everything —  dating, dog-walking, banking, vacuuming, you name it — with technical solutions, it is a welcomed reminder of the role our individual and collective humanity plays in society. The article was published in 1968, and he was talking about nuclear warfare. Very cheerful.

Hardin goes on to consider how people (rather than technology) must manage the challenges of “the commons.”  He writes that “the logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the invention of private property in real estate.” Once land was made private, it also (by definition) made scarcer the public realm. Hardin discusses the challenges of managing the commons, as scarcity and competition can eventually lead to degradation of public spaces.

Economists suggest that we are too self-interested to hold one another accountable. When it is everyone in the commons’ responsibility to (let’s say) throw away your own garbage, throwing away garbage can quickly become no one’s responsibility. Public spaces can be difficult to manage and chaotic, because they are populated with people. In this regard, it becomes awfully tempting to look to technical solutions to apply some control the public realm.  At what point does control sterilize the commons and erode the joy we take from it?  There are a host of measurements we can track to assess community goods and services.  Sometimes nothing can replace a good old-fashioned gut check: does this feel right for our community?

Sidewalk Labs
Take Google’s Sidewalk Labs, a technology company that is “reimaging cities to improve quality of life.”[2]  In the fall of 2017, Sidewalk Labs won an RFP issued by Waterfront Toronto, a local nonprofit that manages the ownership and redevelopment of 800 acres of Port property on behalf of numerous government partners. The property is nestled between downtown and the lakefront, cut off by a major expressway, and largely undeveloped.

Sidewalk Lab’s initial development proposal was for a 12-acre mixed-use neighborhood named Quayside, promising to be “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”[3]  The proposal noted that, “With heightened ability to measure the neighborhood comes better ways to manage it. Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world.”[4]   Feedback from residents noted that the development did not look or feel like the rest of Toronto, and Sidewalk was not necessarily concerned with Quayside fitting into the larger city, but rather conceptualized this as the beginning of a city within itself. As the project evolved, concepts were floated exceeding 100 acres. Quayside would be sleek and modern, featuring a sustainable micro-grid, multi-story buildings with terraces, heated streets and sidewalks to melt the snow, and signaling technology to prioritize pedestrians and bikers over vehicular traffic (including driverless cars). Further, thousands of jobs were promised, a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (over typical development) by 98%, and 40% of residential units below market rate.[5]  How could they deliver this?

Bloomberg reported, “Normally, Waterfront Toronto has spearheaded master plans for the Port Lands area, procuring developers and partners to fulfill the visions it has drawn, ostensibly in the public interest. But in fall 2017, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto formed a joint entity called Sidewalk Toronto, which is now responsible for leading the planning, funding, and development of the site.”  This caused many to wonder: in doing so, what did Waterfront Toronto potentially give away?[6]

Public private partnerships are common and usually necessary to jumpstart investment in a struggling area. Local government will invest in infrastructure or phase-in property taxes over time. These are traditional incentives. Sidewalk Toronto is the first instance I can recall where, as part of a public private partnership, data-gathering was potentially brokered as part of the deal. As it turns out, building a neighborhood from the internet up reaps a goldmine of data that can be mined — not only to optimize services — but also sold to third parties (or back to the government itself) or used to influence personal use and decision-making in public spaces.

The residents of Toronto decided they preferred the messiness and inconveniences brought by a public sphere, over technology solutions and privacy infringement. Earlier this year, Toronto pulled the plug on the Sidewalk Toronto’s redevelopment plan for Quayside. 

Open Access
Again, great neighborhoods and public spaces must strike a balance along two spectrums: (1) vibrancy and social connection versus privacy and intimacy, and (2) efficiency and utility versus the “extras” and the “frivolous.” And, in hashing out the friction points that can arise in the public realm, people-led solutions matter. 
We will not know what will add delight and happiness to the day-to-day lives of Fort Wayne’s residents unless we ask and unless we listen. Efforts to reinvest in the city should be led with a people-first approach.  I am so encouraged by the work I’ve seen the community produce in this regard over the last few years.  It must be continued and amplified.

Delight in the Future
Our community life has a tremendous impact on personal well-being. As the Gallup research shows, this is an area of opportunity for Fort Wayne to improve and doing so would pay dividends for our friends and neighbors.

Fort Wayne is experiencing growth that it has not seen in decades, it is now a top growing metro area in the Midwest. It is growing faster than Columbus, Omaha, or Minneapolis-St. Paul. We will be in a fortunate position to reinvest in and reshape our public spaces. Certainly, those investments are evident today. In addition to more traditional aspects of planning like traffic and stormwater management, we have the opportunity to attend to the connection between public spaces and personal happiness.

What does this look like? It means taking seriously the concern of Southeast Fort Wayne residents over the lack of coffee shops, restaurants, or places to host weddings or baby showers. It means painting piano keys to stripe a crosswalk, as was done to celebrate the heritage of the Packard Park neighborhood. It means finding a way to build out bike and sidewalks lanes, even when it would be cheaper not to.

As Fort Wayne looks forward to the next 20 years, we should continue to put people at the forefront of planning and empower neighborhoods to make changes and advocate for what will their residents happy. They know best.

This essay is part of a citizen-led book project in Fort Wayne called FORTHCOMING: Considering the Future State of Our City. To learn more and read additional essays, visit the Foreword and Preface.

Ellen Cutter joined Greater Fort Wayne Inc. in October 2016. As vice president of economic development, she manages business retention, business attraction, downtown development, airport development, and workforce development activities. A Chicago-area native, Ellen is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, and she earned her Master of City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech, with a focus on economic development and land use. She is an AICP-certified urban planner.  She previously served for three years as director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. During that time, she collaborated with GFW Inc. on the Northeast Indiana Target Industries report and as the project manager of the “Road to One Million Plan” for the IEDC Regional Cities program, which secured $42 million for quality of place projects. Prior to working locally, Ellen served as principal and director of research for Market Street Services, a community and economic development consulting firm based in Atlanta. Her eight-year tenure included strategic planning and technical assistance in more than 20 states and dozens of communities ranging from Des Moines, Iowa, to Austin, Texas, and the State of West Virginia. Ellen serves on the board for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and is a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Williams Woodland Park Neighborhood Association, and American Planning Association. She and her husband, Weston, have three daughters.
[1] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no.385 (1968):1243-1248.
[2] “Sidewalk Labs,” Sidewalk Labs, accessed October 22, 2020,
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Home,” Sidewalk Toronto, June 10, 2020,
[6] Laura Bliss, “How Smart Should a City Be? Toronto is Finding Out,” Bloomberg, September 7, 2018.
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