Reimagining the Civic Commons

Our civic assets were once the pride of our communities. Our libraries, parks, community centers, and schoolyards served rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purpose was nurtured. But as communities became segmented by income, technology advanced and needs changed, support for civic assets declined. Americans spend less time together in social settings, trust each other less and interact less with people whose life experiences are different.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

This initiative intends to be the first comprehensive demonstration of how a connected set of civic assets – a civic commons – can yield increased and more equitably shared prosperity for cities and neighborhoods.

Social interaction among people of different backgrounds, ages, incomes and interests is central to expanding economic opportunity. Through the support of The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local funders, communities across the country are taking action to reimagine public assets as a robust civic commons—reviving public spaces to restore civic engagement, encourage economic integration, increase environmental sustainability and create value for cities and neighborhoods.

A Geography of Opportunity

Civic institutions are the connective tissue that binds our communities. From libraries to parks to recreation centers, they are democratizing places that foster inclusion and opportunity. Reimagining the Civic Commons is a national initiative that supports place-based efforts to catalyze lasting change through the creative use of civic assets.

Launched in 2015 with a promising pilot project still underway in Philadelphia, Reimagining the Civic Commons is working with four additional cities to create a network of civic assets in each city, with demonstrated community support and the potential to serve people of different incomes and backgrounds.

the texture of left behind

05.08.17
photo credit: Yaw Agyeman

By Yaw Agyeman

the texture of left behind

an old shoe
too tight to remember
forgotten by time
and neglect
you became
a texture
your skin
worn and wearied
ready for home
somewhere.
here, maybe
hopefully
waiting has been
a chore
but today a man
whistled away
holding stacks of
cedar and pine
and the future
was as imminent
as decay and rubble
and tomorrow

Yaw Agyeman is Artist in Residence at Arts and Public Life, University of Chicago.

Sparking Civic Engagement in the Civic Commons

07.27.17
Detroit's laundry list for the year to come.

By Alexa Bush and Kate Catherall

Increasing civic engagement is a core principle of Reimagining the Civic Commons. It can be seen in more vibrant public life, increased levels of trust, and in advocacy and stewardship of civic commons sites. Civic engagement is not only a desired outcome of the work, but also a critical component of the process.

Here are three key principles that we believe are fundamental to building a culture of civic engagement through our civic commons.

1. Meet people where they are.

“If you build it, they will come,” is a phrase we hear uttered ubiquitously in conversations about engagement. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true. One of the key mistakes that we tend to make in local government is to expect residents to come to us. We tend to forget the many barriers that prevent people from doing just that. Truly effective engagement efforts take a different approach – they consider the context and daily lives of the people they wish to engage, and meet them on their terms, in their language, and in their communities online and offline.

In Detroit, we’ve found this principle to resonate. Our team continues to try new methods of outreach and collaboration, from meeting at the local school to setting up shop on vacant lots in the neighborhood with boards, tents and a grill. Getting outside in the neighborhood allows us to meet passers-by who might not come to a meeting, but can spare a few minutes to talk and engage with what is happening.

Furthermore, seeing activity in the neighborhood advances outreach in a way that door-to-door efforts might not. With a group gathered around for food and conversation, William Whyte’s observation holds: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

Workforce development initiatives are another civic engagement opportunity. Several residents have gone through trainings or participated in the Detroit Conservation Crew in the neighborhood, clearing and maintaining vacant lots ahead of redevelopment. Armed with information, many of these residents have become our best ambassadors, working in the neighborhood daily.

Engagement must be about more than meetings, period.

Detroit Conservation Crew

2. Empower leaders to be multipliers.

How do we go from 15 residents volunteering at a library to 100 or 500 or 1,000? How do we get more than the same 30 people to show up to community events? How do we scale civic engagement?

At the end of the day, there is no silver bullet. But scale depends on your ability to reach people, and reach requires both capacity as well as trust.

The way to best position your initiative to reach a great number of people with trusted messengers is to identify leaders in the communities you wish to engage, and empower them to take ownership of the project. In community organizing, we use distributed leadership models, whereby leaders with clearly defined roles and responsibilities recruit and activate others to take specific actions. The most prominent of these models is called the “Snowflake Model.” Variations of this model have been used in labor organizing and social movements all over the world. The Obama campaigns used this model to develop neighborhood teams who would execute the campaign’s activities – phone banking, door knocking, voter registration, and data entry. Organizers would recruit and train volunteer team leaders to take ownership over these efforts in their neighborhoods, and those neighborhood team leaders would then recruit volunteer captains for each program (door knocks, phone calls). Those volunteer captains then recruit and manage volunteers to execute the programs (door knockers, phone callers). In this model, each person is a multiplier for the initiative, thus allowing the initiative to scale.

Snowflake Model

There are a few practical considerations to keep in mind when building this model:

– This doesn’t happen overnight.

Organizing is all about relationships, and relationships don’t materialize out of thin air. It takes lots of conversations and 1:1 meetings to identify and build relationships with prospective leaders.

– The people who raise their hands are not always the best leaders.

We define leadership as the ability to move others to action. The loudest voices in the room are not always the people who deliver the best results. Instead of asking people to take responsibilities as leaders early on, test them. Ask them to host a house meeting, organize a build day, or recruit neighbors to attend an event. See how they do. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

– Have clear asks.

This model only works when it’s driven by collective action. What are you asking people to do? How will their actions add up to create an impact? Your asks need to be clear, specific, and connected to your theory of change. Before you can determine the roles you need people to fill, you need to know what specific asks you’re making of them and what specific asks they’ll be making of others.

Kate Catherall presenting the Snowflake Model at Civic Commons Studio #2

3. Make it personal.

 When it comes to engagement, human-to-human connection is paramount. There is a tremendous body of research on how organizations can nudge people to take action, and while context rules, the one overarching theme seems to be that personalization makes a difference. Whether it’s turning people out to vote, inviting people to attend meetings, or persuading people to take a position on issue, behavioral science keeps leading us back to what we already know intuitively: humans respond to other humans.

Detroit’s appreciation dinner

In Detroit, residents have dedicated an incredible amount of time to improving their community and to participating with us in the Civic Commons efforts. In recognition of this, we held an appreciation dinner as a way to personally acknowledge these community members and leaders. It offered an opportunity to be in a social setting and reflect, together. Held in a building still under renovation, the dinner provided a sneak preview of a fabulous space while showing the potential of transformation through attention and care. We asked each participant to write their goals for the coming year on an index card, which we hung up as our “laundry list” for the year to come.

As we move into the second year of our work, we continue to learn from the community and to build the human relationships fundamental to true civic engagement.

Alexa Bush is a Landscape Architect for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.

Kate Catherall is a community organizer with nearly a decade of experience working with candidates, causes, and companies to build their engagement strategies. Most recently, she founded CHORUS Agency, which provides pro bono support to exceptional civic leaders running for office.

Nature-Rich Cities: Salzburg to Philadelphia

08.18.17
Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, Austria

By Jennifer Mahar

Several months ago I had the great honor of representing the Fairmount Park Conservancy at the 574th session of the Salzburg Global Seminar. Founded in 1947, in the wake of the structural and intellectual destruction of Europe, the Seminar’s mission has been to challenge present and future leaders to solve issues of global concern. Partnering with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 52 experts convened around the topic “The Child in the City: Health, Parks and Play” with the goal of crafting impact-driven actions that could be shared globally across a wide range of sectors.

So what in the world was I doing there? Painfully shy and easily intimidated, by no means do I consider myself an expert. But working within the Philadelphia park system for a decade and leading the Reimagining the Civic Commons pilot in Philadelphia for over two years has honed my talent for making connections—among people, organizations, communities, project and program ideas. While I may never be the loudest voice in the room, my strength is to absorb everything, taking in inspiration and the lessons of both success and failure to build thoughtful connections between people, places and ideas.

Salzburg Seminar breakout session

Lessons from Salzburg

From the Seminar I learned that the World Health Organization recommends 9 square meters of green space per person. Of the City of Philadelphia’s 86,000 total acres 12.6 percent (10,830 acres) is parkland, 6,375 acres of which are naturalized or watershed areas. This boils down to roughly 29 square meters per resident, so Philly is doing pretty well on that metric compared to cities across the country worldwide.

Beirut’s “Enjoy your green space” sign

Beirut has just 0.8 square meters of green space per citizen. This patch of grass is all you get. In comparison, Philadelphians are rich in natural lands. We start with 88 percent of the population living within a 10-minute walk of a public green space; however, we should and can be doing more. The principles of Reimagining the Civic Commons are a path for Philadelphia to become a nature-rich city.

Natural lands and urban forestry are unsung opportunities when considering Reimagining the Civic Commons’ goal of value creation and economic opportunity. We know that property values in neighborhoods see a 9 percent increase with the inclusion of enhanced forest canopy, and that shaded business districts increase business by 11 percent. We also know that trees are good for healthy communities. Trees and green space help residents reduce stress and depression and children show fewer symptoms of ADHD and anxiety when they spend time in parks. Trees cool the city by up to 10 degrees, breaking up our heat islands and make these blistering summers (almost) bearable.

Connections in Philadelphia

Park Friends Network meeting

In May, the Fairmount Park Conservancy participated in the first ever Philadelphia Tree Summit. Representatives from thirteen different non-profit organizations, city partners and volunteer groups presented their work, discussed the state of urban forestry management in Philadelphia, developed a list of common goals and challenges and partners to bring to the table. Throughout, a deeply intellectual thought overwhelmed me – “Oh man I want to ‘Commons’ the heck out of this!” What if these organizations worked together to achieve the goal of 30 percent tree canopy coverage in every neighborhood in Philadelphia?

The City and the Conservancy cannot do it alone – our Tree Philly program currently has one full-time staff member. One person oversees the distribution of 4,000 trees for residents to plant in their yards each year. And we know that the greatest challenge to achieving our tree canopy goal is not planting a certain number of trees, but protecting them. The natural lands team which is co-staffed between Parks & Recreation and the Conservancy is a team of four. Four humans manage, plant and restore over 6,000 acres of natural lands in Philadelphia. A bold vision presents a logistical impossibility with current staffing.

It also presents an opportunity. To achieve this kind of vision takes collaboration. The Salzburg Seminar developed eight actions that can transform cities, specifically for children. A collaborative civic commons focused on transforming Philadelphia into a nature-rich city touches on all of the proposed actions, but it will require an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination among city agencies, citizens and nonprofit organizations to get the best out of all three— an organic and sustained model of engagement for which I hope and believe my work with the Civic Commons has helped set the stage.

Tree Summit participants will gather back together in October. My goal is to bring the learning from Reimagining the Civic Commons and the spirit of the Salzburg Seminar to this work, and to the next thing, and to everything after—connecting, learning, and unifying our approach to urban challenges in service to the child of the future city.

Jennifer Mahar is senior director of civic initiatives at Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia.

Saturday in the Park: Experiencing RiverPlay’s First Weekend

           
06.15.17

by Melody Gordon

On a mild and sunny Saturday observers turned into basketball players, families became friendly competitors, and couples took out their cameras to capture it all for RiverPlay’s big debut.

From the elevated viewpoint of Memphis Park, the bright colors and pop music make for an unexpected novelty for people strolling by to get a look at the Mississippi.

image credit: Edward Valibus

A steady flow of people came through RiverPlay on the same day as the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival, an annual music event with +100k attendance. Activities bustled on the asphalt of Riverside Drive with three basketball half-courts, a roller skating rink, a multitude of seating areas, and food stands serving beer and BBQ. Meanwhile, children hula-hooped and played beanbag toss on the nearby grassy hill of Mississippi River Park.

Rhonda Wilkes, a resident of South Memphis, stood off to the side with one foot on the pavement and one in the grass.

“We like to come down with the babies and walk and play on the river,” Wilkes said, waving toward her two daughters with hula-hoops. “I heard the music and when we got closer I was like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ We were just walking through really and wanted to stop for a little bit.”

Another pedestrian on her way to the music festival had a similar idea. Dressed in a flowy top and shiny sunglasses, Alexandra Mae was taking a breather with one of her friends at a picnic table between the half basketball courts.

A Mississippi-native, Mae said, “I’m not from here… I was just here for Memphis in May. We drive up every year and this is new to us. I can’t remember seeing anything like this down here.”

Several seconds later her head turned to glance at one of the basketball players. Slowly, she nodded and looked over all of RiverPlay and said with a smile, “It’s cute.” Then she and her friend were back on the road to neighboring Tom Lee Park, a 30-acre park less than a mile away and the event site of the music festival.

image credit: Edward Valibus

For Andria Lisle, the programming curator for the Fourth Bluff, it’s those little moments of spontaneity that are the most validating. She said, “That was opening weekend and we wanted a very soft opening. We just wanted to open it and sit back and observe what happens in that space naturally.”

Lisle recalled being at RiverPlay on Friday around 2 p.m. shortly before it officially opened. “At 2:55 people just magically started showing up with basketballs,” said Lisle. “That was really exciting to see that, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

“It’s a park that no one has ever seen,” said Lisle. “From the colors used in the design to sustainability features like the LED lighting and the programming the Grizzlies Foundation is bringing makes it a unique destination.”

RiverPlay took ten days to construct on a block-long stretch of Riverside Drive, temporarily closed to automobile traffic for Memphis in May festivities and now for RiverPlay.

Meg Johnson, an urban designer with Groundswell Design Group, the firm that brought RiverPlay to life, said going from conceptualization to installation took approximately three months.

“During the design process, we collaborated with a network of community stakeholders, working with the Riverfront Development Corporation, the Grizzlies Foundation, Innovate Memphis and others,” Johnson said. “During installation, the highlight of our community involvement was on our painting day when volunteers from local libraries, schools, and more came to help paint the vibrant street mural.”

image credit: Edward Valibus

Until August 1, instead of high speed automobile traffic, this section of Riverside Drive will see basketball tournaments, themed skate nights, and after-school programs for kids. Every Friday will be “Fourth Bluff Friday” featuring pop-up beer gardens, food trucks, and music from local artists.

RiverPlay is keeping track of what park-goers do with their new space. Lisle said, “We have this infrastructure for programming, but we also really want the park to be this beautiful organic thing. We’ll see how the public uses it, then adjust as we go.”

Melody Gordon is a native Memphian and freelance writer focusing on local perspectives.

Civic Commons Studio #2: Inspiration from Chicago

                       
06.27.17
photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

By Bronlynn Thurman

It’s messy and you will make mistakes. That was one of the first things that people told us at the second Civic Commons Studio in the windy city. I could visibly see sighs of relief as the group became more comfortable in the unpredictable nature of working with humans. Building relationships is hard, messy and complicated, but in the long run, they’re worth every precious second.

This was my first Civic Commons Studio and being in a space such as Chicago brought about many feelings for me. Although Akron is approximately 30 percent African-American, you do not see well-supported black spaces such as those in Chicago. I was amazed by the strength of black culture in the area. Theaster Gates is a powerhouse of creativity and his interest in ethical redevelopment is inspiring.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Personally, I gained more from exploring his spaces and hearing his partners speak on the tours, than I did from the sessions. It is one thing to listen to others speak about projects, challenges, successes, and ideas, but it’s another to stand in those spaces and see the fruits of that labor. Theaster has created an ode to black people and you can feel the love, care, and attention in every project.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Not to say that Chicago is without its own issues, but coming from a city like Akron to Chicago has shown me what intentional focus on building spaces where people can coexist and mix without sacrificing their dignity can look like.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

Here are my top three takeaways from the Civic Commons Studio #2 – Chicago

-Partnerships are key. Chicago Art + Industry Commons is building solid partnerships across both the private and public sectors.

-Document your process. You need to document where you began and the journey to the final product because that is vital information to showing the success of a project.

-Keep things flexible! People are unpredictable and needs change dependent upon a variety of factors that may be out of your hands.

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

As much as I don’t believe in leaving the revitalization of a city to one person or a small group of people, I do wonder, where is Akron’s Theaster? And how can the civic commons help bring him or her to light?

Bronlynn Thurman is Akron Program Associate at Knight Foundation and Program Assistant at GAR Foundation.

Measuring Success

Civic engagement

When people enjoy equal status in shared spaces, a sense of community and respectful engagement is built and our understanding of others increases. More people from diverse backgrounds participate in the shaping of their city’s future.

Economic integration

Over time, urban neighborhoods have become increasingly segregated by income, with poverty that is persistent and growing. By expanding the use of our shared civic assets by people from all backgrounds and incomes, we can improve economic opportunity from one generation to the next.

Environmental sustainability

A reimagined civic commons connects public spaces to increase access to nature and foster neighborhoods where most trips can be made by walking, biking or transit. Investments are anticipated to create larger tree canopies, improve storm water management and increase energy efficiency.

Value creation

Open, active and connected spaces can attract investment, helping to grow local businesses and change the perception of safety in a neighborhood. As surrounding neighborhoods increase in value, opportunities to capture some of that value can generate public benefits and support the operation of civic assets.

Nature-Rich Cities: Salzburg to Philadelphia

08.18.17
Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, Austria

By Jennifer Mahar

Several months ago I had the great honor of representing the Fairmount Park Conservancy at the 574th session of the Salzburg Global Seminar. Founded in 1947, in the wake of the structural and intellectual destruction of Europe, the Seminar’s mission has been to challenge present and future leaders to solve issues of global concern. Partnering with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 52 experts convened around the topic “The Child in the City: Health, Parks and Play” with the goal of crafting impact-driven actions that could be shared globally across a wide range of sectors.

So what in the world was I doing there? Painfully shy and easily intimidated, by no means do I consider myself an expert. But working within the Philadelphia park system for a decade and leading the Reimagining the Civic Commons pilot in Philadelphia for over two years has honed my talent for making connections—among people, organizations, communities, project and program ideas. While I may never be the loudest voice in the room, my strength is to absorb everything, taking in inspiration and the lessons of both success and failure to build thoughtful connections between people, places and ideas.

Salzburg Seminar breakout session

Lessons from Salzburg

From the Seminar I learned that the World Health Organization recommends 9 square meters of green space per person. Of the City of Philadelphia’s 86,000 total acres 12.6 percent (10,830 acres) is parkland, 6,375 acres of which are naturalized or watershed areas. This boils down to roughly 29 square meters per resident, so Philly is doing pretty well on that metric compared to cities across the country worldwide.

Beirut’s “Enjoy your green space” sign

Beirut has just 0.8 square meters of green space per citizen. This patch of grass is all you get. In comparison, Philadelphians are rich in natural lands. We start with 88 percent of the population living within a 10-minute walk of a public green space; however, we should and can be doing more. The principles of Reimagining the Civic Commons are a path for Philadelphia to become a nature-rich city.

Natural lands and urban forestry are unsung opportunities when considering Reimagining the Civic Commons’ goal of value creation and economic opportunity. We know that property values in neighborhoods see a 9 percent increase with the inclusion of enhanced forest canopy, and that shaded business districts increase business by 11 percent. We also know that trees are good for healthy communities. Trees and green space help residents reduce stress and depression and children show fewer symptoms of ADHD and anxiety when they spend time in parks. Trees cool the city by up to 10 degrees, breaking up our heat islands and make these blistering summers (almost) bearable.

Connections in Philadelphia

Park Friends Network meeting

In May, the Fairmount Park Conservancy participated in the first ever Philadelphia Tree Summit. Representatives from thirteen different non-profit organizations, city partners and volunteer groups presented their work, discussed the state of urban forestry management in Philadelphia, developed a list of common goals and challenges and partners to bring to the table. Throughout, a deeply intellectual thought overwhelmed me – “Oh man I want to ‘Commons’ the heck out of this!” What if these organizations worked together to achieve the goal of 30 percent tree canopy coverage in every neighborhood in Philadelphia?

The City and the Conservancy cannot do it alone – our Tree Philly program currently has one full-time staff member. One person oversees the distribution of 4,000 trees for residents to plant in their yards each year. And we know that the greatest challenge to achieving our tree canopy goal is not planting a certain number of trees, but protecting them. The natural lands team which is co-staffed between Parks & Recreation and the Conservancy is a team of four. Four humans manage, plant and restore over 6,000 acres of natural lands in Philadelphia. A bold vision presents a logistical impossibility with current staffing.

It also presents an opportunity. To achieve this kind of vision takes collaboration. The Salzburg Seminar developed eight actions that can transform cities, specifically for children. A collaborative civic commons focused on transforming Philadelphia into a nature-rich city touches on all of the proposed actions, but it will require an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination among city agencies, citizens and nonprofit organizations to get the best out of all three— an organic and sustained model of engagement for which I hope and believe my work with the Civic Commons has helped set the stage.

Tree Summit participants will gather back together in October. My goal is to bring the learning from Reimagining the Civic Commons and the spirit of the Salzburg Seminar to this work, and to the next thing, and to everything after—connecting, learning, and unifying our approach to urban challenges in service to the child of the future city.

Jennifer Mahar is senior director of civic initiatives at Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia.

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