Adam Greenfield is a co-founder of The Public Bench Project, which is building public benches in San Francisco. Topics include community and urban design.
Listen to This Episode
- The Public Bench Project: publicbenchproject.wordpress.com
- Inner Sunset Sundays: issundays.org
- Our Inner Sunset: inner-sunset.org
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
This is The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.
Adam Greenfield is a community organizer and co-founder of The Public Bench Project, an effort to build benches and public spaces in one San Francisco neighborhood. Adam and I talked about the history of the project, as well as his experiences with bringing people together at the local level. I’ll play that conversation in a moment, but first I’d like to talk a little about urban design.
It’s a topic that usually appears in academic and municipal discussions, but it doesn’t receive as much attention elsewhere. I think that’s unfortunate, because poorly designed cities and towns affect not only underprivileged groups but all of us, because we all use public spaces every day, even if we stick to roads and sidewalks.
Poor urban design can lead to social problems, and one of the most popular examples of this is the lack of accommodations for people with disabilities. When policymakers and property owners build features into public spaces to accommodate different groups and individuals, be they old, young, rich, poor, and so on, it’s like rolling out a welcome mat for their communities.
Urban design is a complicated art, because every public space can be reduced to the beliefs about different people that it represents. Now, in saying that, I don’t want to encourage cynicism toward those who design urban environments, because it’s a tough job. Cities and towns are constantly changing, and new residents bring new expectations with them, so it can be difficult to balance everyone’s needs, especially when budgets are limited.
Regardless of designers’ intentions, there are at least three social forces that guide norms of urban design and the ways we structure our communities. One would be the automobile—that’s a given, because it completely transformed our society. Another would be the maintenance of suburbs and highways that were built after World War II,1 and the last would be changes to our third places.2 Third places, by the way, are locations other than home or work where people can go to socialize safely and conveniently. I’ll keep this short and focus on third places, because The Public Bench Project is attempting to restore those in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood.
Third places are gathering points with qualities like free or affordable access, close proximity for those living nearby, familiar faces, and feelings of home away from home. Examples can be found in public spaces like parks and libraries, religious groups that host community gatherings at their places of worship, and small businesses like barber shops and bookstores that invite customers to hang out. Scholars debate on whether the Internet can also be considered a third place, because it’s clear that online social networks make real-world communities possible.3 Even something as simple as a bench can serve as a third place when installed in an inviting location.
Adam mentioned in our conversation that public spaces have become places to merely pass through, and he implied that this is a bad thing. I would add that several decades of hasty suburban development, as well as cuts in government spending, have reduced the availability of third places, especially in underserved neighborhoods.4 This is a problem, because the disappearance of these places has been linked to issues like low voter turnout, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and less civic cooperation.5 I’m going to speculate that the decline of trust among Americans is involved in there, too, so that’s why I’m glad Adam agreed to talk about his work with us. He and The Public Bench Project are proving that anyone can make their communities more friendly.
Adam and I had originally set up a call with us and Chris Duderstadt, the other co-founder of The Public Bench Project. Chris had some obligations that made him unavailable, so Adam and I went ahead and talked about what they’ve been up to. I enjoyed our conversation, and I hope you will, too. Here’s Adam Greenfield, community organizer and co-founder of The Public Bench Project.
Interview with Adam Greenfield
AG: Hey, Josh.
JM: Hey, Adam! I really appreciate your willingness to help out with this.
AG: Oh, no worries.
JM: I know we played phone tag for a few days. Then we tried to get Chris on, but it sounds like he’s busy now.
AG: Yeah. I can talk about the subject fine, so we don’t really need him. I just thought I’d ask him because he does more than I do, but I think he’s pretty cool with it.
JM: What kind of work does he do?
AG: He’s a machinist. He builds machines that lift heavy things for contract work.
AG: He’s, like, one of the only people who knows how to do it, so he’s busy doing that.
JM: Where’d you guys get the idea to build benches for people?
AG: Back in 2012, I called up Chris Duderstadt, my neighbor here in the Inner Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco, and I said, “Chris, can you come up with a design for a bench that is cheap, easy to produce, and potentially makeable by different people?” I asked Chris because he’s a machinist. He’s one of the only people of his kind in the country, and I just thought he would have a good head for this kind of thing.
Chris went away and got back to me a couple of weeks later, and showed me all of these historical photos of benches he had pulled up from around San Francisco and around the country and around the world. He was looking for the best elements of all of them that he could combine into one really simple design. Eventually, he came up with the design, which is the design we use for The Public Bench Project, which is all two-by-fours. All the components of the actual wooden part are two-by-fours.
He came up with this design, and then he called me a couple of days later with this shaky voice. He said, “Adam, I’ve got something I want to say to you,” and I said, “Okay. What is it?” He said, “I’ve been thinking about this bench thing, and I’ve just decided that I want to get a bench on every corner in the Inner Sunset neighborhood, and I’ll pay for it myself. I don’t care, like, how much it costs. I want to do it.”
He started, you know, on this crusade of The Public Bench Project. I was there helping to find locations, and I painted one of the benches myself, so that’s how it got started.
JM: What are you hoping to achieve by putting benches in this neighborhood?
AG: Chris and I believe feel very strongly about the value of the public realm, which is this much abused space or much neglected space outside our houses and outside our private residences. The public realm is really the one place that we all have in common, that we all own together. It’s an incredibly, incredibly important realm, and if you look at what’s happened to the public realm over the last couple of centuries, it’s been completely neglected.
If you walk around a lot of cities today, we have strips of sidewalk, which is nice, but we don’t really have anything else. There’s nothing there. The public realm has simply become a place to pass through. Historically, the public realm was always a place for gathering, for lingering, for coming into contact with people, so The Public Bench Project is our way of trying to bring lingering—which has this very negative connotation these days. Lingering sounds like you’re hanging around because you’re trying to cause trouble. For us, lingering has a very positive connotation of simply just being outside in the public realm and sticking around. The more you stick around, the more likely you are to meet people, to meet neighbors, to make new friends, and also simply to make the streets more inviting. The more people are out there, the more inviting and the safer the streets become.
We put dozens of these benches around the neighborhood. More and more, we’re seeing there are more and more people using them. They’re out on the street, and the streets are becoming more friendly and welcoming and pleasant to be in.
JM: It sounds like you’re not necessarily building benches. You’re building gathering points.
AG: Yeah, that’s it. There’s a whole world of places you can go with this thing. In other places, they’ve combined benches with notice boards and newspaper dispensaries, so you kind of magnify the value of the benches by bringing other things into contact with them.
Another great thing about this project is that, about twenty years ago, the current political establishment in San Francisco decided that benches were not a good thing, and started tearing them out en masse around the city. Generally, the reasons were homeless people sleeping on them and antisocial behavior, so The Public Bench Project is a response to that. It says, “Well, maybe government can’t do everything for us. Maybe sometimes the community needs to do it.” When the community does it, we can be a lot more flexible with the benches.
Every bench has a steward. Every bench is tied to a building of some kind, and the person in that building takes responsibility for the bench. We can really look after each bench individually, whereas a city government is often just trying to minimize risk or responsibility, so if something goes wrong, they just tear everything out. We’re a very much more grassroots-targeted approach, which I think works out much better in the long run.
JM: So you’re not necessarily just building benches and setting them free. You have people keeping watch over them, so it sounds like a good way to organize it.
AG: Yeah. I guess you could say an anarchic model, where lots of people take ownership over these things. We don’t put a bench out without the permission of somebody’s—of a building resident or owner. Well, it always has to be the owner. Every bench we put out is being stewarded by the person who owns the building, or lives in the building, with the consent of the building owner.
Yeah, every bench has a steward. The person sees the bench every day because they’re coming and going, and so they can really quickly. They don’t need city workers traipsing around the neighborhood once a year to see if everything’s still okay, so we think it’s a great approach.
JM: You don’t sound like you came from this neighborhood. [laughs]
JM: …so I should probably ask: what’s your background? How did you wind up there?
AG: I was born on the island of Guernsey in the U.K., which is between England and France, somewhat closer to France, and I spent my childhood there. When I graduated from university as an undergraduate, I traveled around the world. I was in Brazil on my last leg, and three days from the end of this 9 ½ month tour, I met people from the San Francisco Bay Area. I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I was going to do next, and I was very open to possibilities and open to new adventures, so I decided to come here. The vibrancy and the possibilities in this city just resonated with me. I stuck around, and I’m still here over ten years later.
My start in community organizing was delivering holiday cards, which I made myself, to my neighbors one Christmas. When I got back in home from that, I thought, ‘Huh. I really do have neighbors. There’s actual people who live on my street. I wonder what could come of knowing them.’ It just kind of started snowballing from there.
JM: I get the impression that The Public Bench Project is part of a larger—I don’t want to call it an organization, but you have a lot of other things going besides the building of benches. What else do you have going on?
AG: Yeah, there’s quite a few things. There’s obviously the benches.
We do an event several times a year called Inner Sunset Sundays. Inner Sunset Sundays, or ISS, as we call it for short, takes place on one block in the center of our neighborhood. What we’re trying to do through that is raise public consciousness that streets don’t only have to be for moving through and specifically moving through for those who operate an automobile. They can be places to gather. Unlike a typical street fair, which is mainly about buying something, passing through, and leaving, and generally happens once a year, we do these events several times a year. We place a lot of focus on lingering, on putting benches out, on getting people to interact with each other, and developing civic participation. That’s one of the big things that we do.
I’ve been involved with some projects to install parklettes, which is actually a city-approved permit program where you can apply to convert several parking spaces into a gathering space. That might be something like putting decking on top with some chairs and tables on top of this space.
JM: Oh, interesting.
AG: Yeah, so. I’ve worked on a few of those projects. Those are really great because, once they get established, they are there all the time, so that’s really powerful.
There’s a lot of things—a lot of things, big and small. I’ve been on my neighborhood association board since 2009, and it’s been great to work through that organization and raise awareness about the value of community, about knowing your neighbors. One of the other things I do is I support as many neighbors as possible in the neighborhood to have block parties. Once you open your street up to yourself and your neighbors, then it really brings a lot more people out, and they start to connect with each other and want to collaborate and interact with each other more often throughout the year.
People often use the phrase “closing the street down” when we talk about block parties and street events, and I very intentionally say “opening the street up.”
JM: Oh, I like that.
AG: Yeah, because when you say “closing the street down,” you’re implying that the streets are for and only for vehicles, and that is somehow the freest a street can be, the best it can be, whereas I think that “opening up a street” should mean people coming into the street, and that is a more freeing experience than driving down a street.
JM: I love the way you put that.
AG: Yeah. It’s, you know, important to look at the terminology we use for things, because it can betray a certain cultural assumption that perhaps we’re not aware of. “Opening up a street,” “closing a street.”
There’s also—some transportation progressives use the word collision instead of accident when it comes to cars hitting things, because accident implies that something couldn’t have been foreseen, and that it was truly out of the control of the participants, whereas collision perhaps implies that cars are inherently dangerous. You can operate a car as safely as you could possibly do, and a child could run out into the street, the child could be killed, and you couldn’t have seen it possibly coming, but you were inviting something to happen just by virtue of operating an inherently dangerous car.
So, yeah. It’s important to look at the terminology we use and to be conscious about that.
JM: How do you get funding for projects like these?
AG: The Public Bench Project is self-funded. We ask for a small donation to cover the cost of producing a bench. All the materials to produce a bench are only about $25–30 dollars, so they’re very cheap. That’s one of the genius elements of Chris’s design is that the benches are so cheap, and very comfortable, as well. That’s a really good model, and then—yeah. You were asking specifically about The Public Bench Project, right?
JM: Well, I mean, there’s all these other things going on, it sounds like, so—
JM: When I originally found out about you and Chris, I only knew about the benches.
JM: —but then, the more I’ve read about through your website and what-not, I see that there’s so much more going on.
AG: Yeah. Funding is always kind of tight, but the good thing about not having as much money is that you’re not tied to as many things. There’s often strings attached when it comes to money.
JM: Ah, that makes sense.
AG: For our Inner Sunset Sundays events, we try and raise money from the community. We do ask for donations from local businesses. We get some larger, non-local businesses contributing, too. I guess I’m a fairly lousy fundraiser, so I don’t raise a huge amount of money. The upside of that is that we’re less beholden to others’ interests, and we’re more beholden to the community that we’re doing this for.
JM: If someone wants to request a bench, what’s the process like for that?
AG: They just email us.
JM: Can anyone just contact you?
AG: Yeah. We’ve actually had people from other neighborhoods around San Francisco get in touch with us. Actually, occasionally, we get an email from someone some other place in the country who just wants to know more about what it is.
Yeah, it’s simple. Someone emails us. Chris has a look at the location and makes sure the person making the request is the person authorized to have the bench there, and if the location and the requester match up and work, then they get a bench.
JM: How often do you get requests like that?
AG: It varies. It’s been a steady stream from the beginning. We really just kind of had an initial run of benches, and then the website just kind of sat there. It’s just kind of organically grown. We get shops talking to us. We’ve had more residents talking to each other and saying, “Oh, I love that bench over there. I’ve heard this guy called Chris makes them. Maybe we should talk to him about getting one in front of our house or business.”
Slowly, the network of chitter-chatter about this thing is spreading. At the start, we would approach people and say, “Would you like to steward a bench?” and now people come to us and do it.
JM: It sounds like the feedback has been great so far.
AG: Yeah! It has. Like in any community, there’s a few people who don’t like it or are alarmed by it, and will make complaints to the city. The city has been very accommodating and sympathetic to what we do, so we’ve been able to work through that. The vast majority of people are very happy.
One of the concerns that people often have is about antisocial behavior, which is why so many benches around San Francisco were torn out in the first place. We’ve had just two benches that were in locations that were encouraging behavior that the bench stewards didn’t know how to deal with, so they asked us to take the bench out. You know, two benches out of several dozen benches is not that bad at all. Again, it goes to show how well the small-scale, community approach works, because we’re really able to deal with each bench specifically, and really target each situation and be flexible about each situation.
JM: So have you had any municipal agencies approach you about completing benches, or is it mostly residents and businesses?
AG: Yeah, it’s generally that. I think Chris did make a bench for our Recreation and Park Department to go in one of their buildings. I think he would be definitely open if he were approached by them, but of course they have their own workshops and their own processes for public infrastructure.
Because the benches are made out of wood, the fog and the rain and the elements beat away at them. They don’t last as long as the metal benches. The paint chips away and wears down, and we like to make sure the benches look good. They require a little bit more hands-on attention than a city might want to deal with.
That’s why I think the bottom-up, grassroots approach is so inspiring, because there’s so many approaches you can take from the grassroots that are just not possible from the government level. People, you know—so often when they want something to change. [If] they want less speeding on their street, they go to the government essentially as a customer of the government and say, “We want this.” They hope that the government does something, and it’s usually a very expensive solution.
Our approach is completely different. We think that communities can do a lot more things for themselves, it can be done cheaply, and the solutions can be much more context-specific and appropriate.
JM: You’ve mentioned a little bit about how the benches have changed behaviors in people where they’ve been placed. Can you think of specific examples where you’ve noticed positive effects?
AG: I love seeing the effect that the benches have on the vibrancy of the neighborhood. There’s one bench in the neighborhood which I actually painted. It’s got hearts all over it, and a little old couple—I’ve seen them many times. They seem to enjoy sitting there in the morning around 9:00 or 10:00. They’ve kind of made it a part of their walk that they presumably take around the neighborhood, so you get to see more familiar faces.
JM: Oh, that’s nice.
AG: It’s—yeah. It’s also been really nice to see businesses, which, so often, businesses tend to be quite conservative when it comes to change because their lives are on the line. They’re very cautious about changes, and it’s been interesting to see businesses actually approach us and say, “Can we have a bench outside? Because this brings more business to us.” Businesses are realizing that improving the public realm is good for them, and contributing to the common good is good for them.
Just down the street from me at a sub shop—it make sandwiches and they sell cheese. They’ve got two benches outside. Both benches kind of look like a block of cheese. They’re yellow with the holes in it. It’s just really nice.
I remember coming home quite late a couple of weeks ago. I went past that location, and there was a young couple sitting on the bench just admiring the night because it was a little warmer than usual. Otherwise, the street was completely empty. It just brought a little ray of sunshine to that part.
The other day, I was at the grocery store, and there’s an ice cream shop across the street with a bench, one of our benches, in front of there. The bench has ice creams painted all over it. There was what looked to me like a father and his young daughter from the school nearby eating an ice cream together. It’s just little things like that.
You know, one of the pleasures of living in a great city like San Francisco is the details. In the details of a city, that’s where you really realize that people love being there, is when they look after the details. I love going around the neighborhood and seeing the little moments of humanity that these benches make possible. It’s really—it just brings a little bit of delight every time I see it.
JM: The idea of opening up public space, I feel like, invites those details to come back out, so these benches are helping with that, it sounds like.
AG: They’re a small part, but I think they’re a very symbolic and meaningful part of bringing people back outside, taking responsibility for their environment, embellishing the public realm, and treating the public realm with the respect it deserves. If you go to, say, Siena in Italy and you go to the Piazza del Campo, it’s an amazing public square—amazing public space. The message that public space communicates to you is respect for the common good. Places that have few or no facilities for the public realm, they are telling you that they don’t have respect for the common good.
One of the things that people have said about our benches is that the benches communicate a concern for the common good, which I think is very inspiring.
JM: Is there something specific that’s surprised you about putting out these benches?
AG: One of the things that’s surprised me about the benches is that it just keeps expanding. I thought we were going to put out just ten benches, and that was going to be it. We still keep getting—it’s like a leaky faucet, just drop-drop-drop. We keep getting requests on an ongoing basis. That’s been a really wonderful thing to see. It’s also really nice to hear that people are talking about it. People come to us and they say, “Oh, some neighbor that has one was talking to me,” or someone who knows someone who knows someone who heard of Chris making these benches—you see how word spreads, and that people are talking to each other.
It’s also been nice that this has actually worked. You could easily see a powerful city government like ours clamping down on us and saying, “You can’t do this,” or, “You have to go through some heavy-handed bureaucracy,” or, “The benches have to be way,” or what have you. Quite the opposite of anyone trying to clamp it down, it’s actually been warmly received and it’s growing. Yeah, it’s been really a positive reaction.
JM: Are there any goals in place for The Public Bench Project?
AG: There’s only really a higher-level philosophy behind The Public Bench Project. We don’t have any goals in terms of numbers of benches or anything like that. Maybe one day that will happen, but right now we’re sort of just letting it grow like a plant, and just kind of let it have a life of its own. I think that’s important sometimes to, you know. There are times to have plans and there are times to let things evolve, and I think we’re enjoying letting The Public Bench Project evolve in the direction that it wants to go in.
One of the things we’re seeing is that, as more and more neighbors come together in other ways like the block parties—which I’ve been involved with, you start to see more benches popping up because they start thinking about the public realm more. You can literally walk around our neighborhood, and the presence of the benches will tell you which streets are more engaged and communally-minded, which is really interesting.
JM: Have you encountered anyone that didn’t understand why you were doing this? I can imagine people coming up to you and saying there are bigger problems than trying to build public spaces. How would you respond to those types of comments?
AG: Well, if people said there were bigger problems to solve than public space, I would say there may be, but how are you going to solve them if you don’t have access to other people? For me, the benches and the block parties and the street events we do are about providing a platform for the community to address whatever issues are important to it.
Just in the past day or so, I’ve seen neighbors who came together around a block party last weekend continue the conversation on email. Someone raised the point about cars speeding down the street, and there’s been a conversation back and forth about what to do about that. That conversation may not have happened if it weren’t for the building of connections that happens through the block parties. The block party was not about speeding cars, but it has lead to a discussion about that.
I think the importance of platform building, of creating a base for people to connect and have discussions is very important. We hear a lot about that from [an] electronic point of view—Facebook and Nextdoor and other online platforms, but we really mustn’t forget the value of the physical realm.
JM: If you had any advice for people who wanted to bring people in their neighborhood together but didn’t know where to begin, what would you say?
AG: There’s some very easy, specific things you can do.
One of the things that a lot of blocks do if they want to meet their neighbors and just get the ball rolling is to find a place on the sidewalk outside their house, or somewhere on the street, that would be good for a barbecue. They put flyers under the doormat or through the mailbox of all the houses on the street. The flyers says, you know, “We’re having a sidewalk barbecue for all of the neighbors on this block to meet each other. Just come and hang out,” and that’s it! You find a place, find a time, make some flyers, distribute them, and that’s it!
Something like that can be a very effective first step for people who are new to it, who don’t want to jump into something really involved, but who just want to shake the rug a little bit and bring people out.
One of the things I’ve learned is, if you want to meet people and if you want to get people working together, start where they live. People always care the most about the zones closest to their home. They care obviously the most about their home, but they care a lot about the street outside, the block they live on. The further you get from that, the more diffuse their connection becomes, so connect with people where they are.
JM: Did you have the desire to organize people before you moved to Inner Sunset, or do you think the neighborhood brought that out in you?
AG: For me personally, I think it was just a fluke. My desire to build community and bring people together was just an accident that came out of just some idle thinking I had, that it would be nice to meet my neighbors, because I live in a city of 820,000 people and I don’t even know the people on my street. It just came out of a curiousness on my part.
Gradually, as I evolved with that train, with that path, I started realizing plenty of other things, as well, like the environments we live in actually are designed in a way that separates us and keeps us apart. There was a study done in Melbourne a couple of years ago on one particular street that showed that two-thirds of all interactions on that street happened because the neighbors had front gardens and would sit in their front gardens. Other neighbors would walk by and chat to each other as a result. I realized that the design of our environment is incredibly important, and I looked around and realized that my neighborhood was not conducively designed to facilitate community.
Again, the benches really help in their own way to improve and add to the design of the neighborhood.
JM: Sort of to sum up everything we’ve talked about, if your work had a message, what would you like for that message to say?
AG: I’ve always moved forward in an intuitive way with what feels right. Often, I don’t start with something that has an explicit goal. It just seems like the right thing to do. I think, over time, what has become a common element of everything I do is simply the need to connect with people directly.
The Internet is a very mixed blessing when it comes to bringing people together, because connecting through a medium like a computer is a very indirect way of connecting with people. It has advantages, but it also has a lot of drawbacks. I think we get sucked into that too much. I think it’s important to connect with people as directly as possible, and for us to share the skills we have. Everybody has something to contribute, be it time or skills or inspiration. Everybody has a part to play—or simply just turning up. I think it was Woody Allen who said that, “Eighty percent of life is just showing up,” and I really agree with that.
JM: If anybody wants to follow your work online, what websites would you recommend?
AG: We have The Public Bench Project website, which is publicbenchproject.wordpress.com. We have the Inner Sunset Sundays website, which are the events we use to raise public awareness about public space. That’s issundays.org. Our neighborhood association is inner-sunset.org, so inner-sunset.org. Those are the websites connected to the things we do. Maybe one day, I’ll just develop a website that will bring everything I’ve worked on together in a neat package. Maybe that’s a project for another day.
JM: If anybody would want to contact you, like email, for example, what would be the best way to do that?
AG: People can contact me at adam at inner-sunset.org.
JM: Okay! Anything else you’d like to add?
AG: I think that’s it. What are your plans for the podcast?
JM: Well, I have one episode so far. My plan has been to reach out to people that seem to be doing good works. I was really inspired by the bench project idea, which is why I reached out to you. I’ll just keep on until I run out of people to talk to, I guess.
JM: Yeah. Well, that’s all I have.
AG: Okay, good luck.
JM: Alright. Thanks, Adam.
AG: Okay, have a good day.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in cozy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created our theme music.
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In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
Think about a third place nearby that you like to go to. If you know the owner, or can find a way to contact them, you should thank them for keeping the place open. If you can’t think of a place nearby like that, then there’s your opportunity to start one.
That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.
- These arguments are based on ideas from three sources: the books Internal Combustion by Edwin Black and Republic of Drivers by Cotten Seiler, and an episode of the “99% Invisible” podcast, “The Modern Moloch”.
- Arguments related to this statement originate from the books The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg and Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, among others.
- An overview of the discourse about this idea is available at Google Scholar.
- See the sources in Note 2. Also, the statement about cuts in spending is based on the Keynesian view of austerity.
- This mostly draws from observations in Putnam’s work, as collected in Bowling Alone.