Secrets of Smartsville, USA

Census data has pinpointed the Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, as the best-educated American city with 50,000 or more residents. (See story.)

Nevermind that the "smartest suburb"abuts the nation's capital and is home to the National Institutes of Health, meaning lots of well-educated folks live alongside PhD'd policy wonks. The city also attracts the best and brightest because its "smart" planning makes Bethesda a center of civic activity, with an integrated mix of shops, residences, restaurants, and an abundance of thriving small businesses.

Even more important, the city has what's called "public capital," including an abundance of social gatherings, organized spaces for interaction, or "third spaces" – public areas where people naturally congregate and converse, even with strangers.

And it has catalytic organizations – such as Bethesda's Urban Partnership – which jumpstart, and maintain, community-wide efforts. Public capital is built up by ongoing civil, public discussion that helps a wide base of people actively decide how their community should act.

To be sure, Bethesda's mushrooming growth also brings serious traffic and parking issues. And its popularity among the well-heeled has prompted a lack of affordable housing.

But it makes the point that civic well-being can transcend a lack of income and education. Shared community purpose and pride can be practiced in any community anywhere.

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