The Agenda - Issue 171 - Magazine | Monocle
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urbanism –––– colorado
Across the great divide

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson meets the man helping polarised American communities find common ground.


Insurmountable political polarisation now seems as much a part of American life as apple pie. And with a rancorous presidential election looming, the Republican-Democrat divide threatens to consume the country. Clark Anderson believes that it doesn’t have to be that way. As co-founder and executive director of Community Builders, an organisation based in the Colorado town of Glenwood Springs that operates across the state and in others nearby, he is working with civic leaders and communities in frontier towns across the mountainous western US to find common ground on matters transcending grand political narratives. As a Colorado native who grew up in a small community, Anderson (pictured) understands the issues that really matter to locals: walkable towns and cities, affordable housing, sustainable tourism, thriving downtowns and efficient public transportation. The thinking is that if you can persuade people from opposing political camps to agree on the issues that improve their immediate environment, you can stop differences of opinion escalating into conflict and intractable division. 

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“Rather than creating communities that separate us, how do we create ones that are really inclusive?” says Anderson. “That is increasingly hard, especially within national politics, where we have a hardening of tribes. So breaking that down a little bit at the local level feels good.” The challenges and conflicts faced by the kind of communities that Anderson works with include poorly planned industrial change and rapid population growth. “It’s the Old West: all of these towns were settled around single industries, such as mining, logging or ranching,” he says. “Now they are becoming popular because they have this outstanding lifestyle and scenery. They are also facing economic change as they are forced to diversify.”

Similar stories are playing out across the US as people grapple with demographic change, shifting industry and increased automation. This comes against a backdrop of vitriolic national politics, as some leaders and media outlets seek to portray current divisions as a battle for America’s soul. “That has changed how people show up at the local level and the level of tribalism,” says Anderson. His solution is to identify the fundamental values that connect a community, regardless of their political views, and root discussions and negotiations in those values. Community Builders’ projects range from revitalising downtown areas and underused districts to helping communities to develop sustainable transportation systems. All stakeholders, from civic leaders to citizens, are brought together in a range of larger and smaller groups, as they move towards a common understanding and, if all goes well, compromise. 

“Once you get into the local level, a lot of the national-scale politics tends to go away,” says Anderson. He recalls a recent example in the former mining town of Silverton, where deep divides appeared to exist between newcomers from larger, liberal cities and the more conservative long-standing residents. They disagreed over the future of a small family ski resort. “The fundamental finding of common ground came through asking questions about the basics of what matters,” says Anderson. “Why do you love the community? What brought you here? Why do you still live here? What are your hopes for the future?” When asked to spend time together reflecting on these questions, all sides agreed that a giant ski resort would be out of sync with the values they shared.

Anderson stresses that differences of opinion on such matters are not inherently negative; they just reflect the deep connection that people have with the places in which they live. As he says, “Issues such as housing, land use, transportation and how we grow our economies should be divisive – because they’re really important.” – L

McDonald-Gibson is a journalist and Monocle contributor based in Washington.

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