The West End Word recently had the opportunity to ask the question to which I have been eager to know the answer: How many comments were submitted by the public either online or in person during the Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition's one week public comment period. The answer: 610.
On average, more than 5,000 people visit the Arch every day. A timecapsule containing the signatures of 760,000 people is welded inside the Arch's keystone section. More than 2,800,000 people live in the St. Louis metro area. Several hundred million dollars will very likely be spent over the next decade to rebuild, reshape and enhance the grounds and surrounding area and a grand total of 610 comments were submitted.
There are approximately 80,000 daily workers in downtown St. Louis. Nearly 10,000 live in downtown St. Louis. A number of companies in or near downtown employ many more than 610. It's not uncommon for an online Post-Dispatch article to garner 100 comments in a matter of hours. Someone clicks on urbanstl.com 610 times every few hours and 1,000 votes were registered on the urbanSTL poll in just more than a week.
According to story, comments came from 22 states, meaning fewer than 600 were submitted by Missouri and Illinois residents. A summarized version of the comments has been supplied to the 8-person competition jury. urbanSTL has requested a copy of that summary. Clearly the vast majority of people in the St. Louis region either see the Arch grounds and downtown as something that does not and will not affect them in any real way, do not believe that their voice will be listened to, or were unaware that their input was wanted.
I've written previously about the death of the civic experience and it would be difficult for anyone to not see 610 comments as anything other than a failure. Ultimately, the failure is that of individuals who chose not to weigh in on a process that will affect the region for decades to come. But why didn't more people weigh in? Those wishing to leave comments could do so in person at the Arch grounds and online at the NPS website. There's obviously a much larger question here about civic participation.
Short of offering a solution to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, what more could have been done to encourage public participation? I think it's no longer sufficient to expect that anyone who cares will participate. It's a simple enough premise, but clearly a flawed one. If public participation is wanted, then one must invite it, seek it out and work for it.
Could the NPS and the Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition had a more consistent online presence? More public events to engage the people of St. Louis? Could the dearth news coverage have contributed to the apathy? The return of Rick Ankiel or the weekly carnage on our Interstates get more coverage than the Arch competition has received.
I'm more interested in this competition and the City than most, but I truly expected that full reviews of the final five designs would be offered by several news outlets. Both the Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Beacon offered reviews following the team's jury presentation, the day after the public comment period ended. The Riverfront Times online linked to urbanSTL reviews.
Some may ask if it matters, given that a jury of eight will ultimately decide the winner of the competition. If you care about civic life, if you think that what the people of St. Louis want for their own community is important, then yes, public participation matters.