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

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
here, maybe
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.

Award-winning design for Fitzgerald

photo credit: Spackman Mossop Michaels

The American Society of Landscape Architects bestowed a 2017 ASLA Professional Award upon Detroit’s Fitzgerald Revitalization Project. Recognition of the work by a large collaboration of partners to reimagine a neighborhood-level civic commons, and support a community where everyone has a stake and everyone belongs.

photo credit: Spackman Mossop Michaels

photo credit: Alexa Bush

Moving On: Reflections on a learning journey to Detroit

Art on the Dequindre Cut; photo credit: Hanae Mason

By Hanae Mason

Since my childhood, I have spent significant time in and around Detroit. I attended kindergarten in Beverly Hills, one of the city’s 100+ suburbs. Over the years, my father has moved amongst these various suburbs and the city proper, in which he has been settled for the last several years in the historically affluent and predominantly black University District neighborhood. I come and visit a few times each year.

Seeing the city through fresh eyes

Despite my familiarity with the city, through this learning journey, I experienced and learned things I never had before. Being somewhat of a tourist in a city that you’ve only ever experienced as somewhat of a local grants great perspective. For instance, I distinctly remember attending a youth day on Belle Isle with plaits in hair and Shasta soda in hand. I could have never imagined I’d return decades later to meet the people of the Belle Isle Conservancy, who curate and plan such programs.

Belle Isle; photo credit: Nadir Ali

Not all of the trip brought about such warm and nostalgic feelings. Even with my prior knowledge of the disproportionate amount of reinvestment and revitalization in the downtown and riverfront areas in comparison to many of the neighborhoods like Fitzgerald, experiencing this contrast so intensively and intimately made me feel a little overwhelmed and frustrated. You cannot help but empathize with the cynicism of residents, like the man who drove past our touring group on 6 Mile and yelled out of his truck window, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Visiting the Fitzgerald neighborhood; photo credit: Nadir Ali

Grappling with the dynamics of power and privilege

This does not discredit the amazing work being done in those areas by Live6 or the civic commons and the Fitzgerald Revitalization team or any other organizations. It just made me wonder what can be done so the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our respective cities and communities are more than merely engaged or involved and have actual agency. How are we ensuring that our processes and planning, even with good intent and real or perceived improvement, are challenging and changing existing power and privilege dynamics that created such inequity instead of reifying them? I believe our ability to grapple with and answer this question is key to lasting change and progress.

Fitzgerald resident, Michael Dones shares Mo-Flo Community Garden; photo credit: Nadir Ali

Diversity exemplified

Just when I was feeling discouraged, my final evening in the city I witnessed my first Slow Roll. Its simplicity, inclusivity, and diversity exemplified everything that I know Detroit to be. The organic energy and resilient spirit of this event is what we all hope to replicate in our civic commons. Something as simple as thousands of people coming together each week to just ride their bikes is what helps build community and trust and hope.

It will always be the Motor City, but whether in cars or on bikes, Detroit moves forward…even if just slowly.

Hanae Mason amidst the Slow Roll pre-ride gathering; photo credit: Bridget Marquis

Hanae Mason works in nonprofit programming and creative placemaking in Philadelphia. She writes, cooks, and consumes massive amounts of media in her spare time.

Go Fourth

Weekly free yoga class at the Fourth Bluff; photo credit: Andrea Morales

The ethos of the Fourth Bluff in Memphis is captured in a new short video.

The Fourth Bluff is place for all Memphians. It is about breaking down barriers, not building them. Through the Fourth Bluff people from all walks of life can explore, play and connect.

Go Fourth.

A Studio in Chicago: Experiencing culture-led neighborhood revitalization

Civic Commons Studio #2; photo credit: Brandon Fields

By Daniel M. Rice

Civic Commons Studio #2 in Chicago showcased the successful work of the Stony Island Arts Bank and how Rebuild Foundation, Place Lab and Theaster Gates are facilitating neighborhood revitalization through community relationships and cultural programming. From the cultural arts and literary collections at the Stony Island Arts Bank to the revitalization through the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, thoughtful attention is given to building trust with neighborhood residents to ensure that their voice is reflected and represented in the work of Rebuild Foundation and Place Lab. As we walked through the surrounding neighborhood, our tour guides reminded us that we were guests in the neighborhood and to be respectful of the daily activities.

Tour of Greater Grand Crossing; photo credit: Brandon Fields

Segregation prevents shared identities

The importance of developing civic commons spaces that are equitable and welcoming to all members of society was reinforced by Ryan Enos’ presentation on cultivating and nurturing an inclusive commons. As Enos noted, “Separate, unshared identities cause us to think people are different from us and even to discriminate. Segregation prevents shared identities and integration enables shared identities.”

Ryan Enos presenting at Civic Commons Studio #2; photo credit: Brandon Fields

Finding the nexus between for-profit and non-profit

Through the work of Rebuild Foundation, Place Lab and Theaster Gates, there is an element of integration of for-profit operation into his systems. A great example of the integration of the for-profit operation with the non-profit mission is the Currency Exchange Café, where artist and cultural programs are presented, local residents use as a community gathering place and business men and women enjoy good coffee and conversation. There is a need for our community to examine the nexus between for-profit and non-profit organizations as a potential model for economic mixing and value creation.

Currency Exchange Café; photo credit: Brandon Fields

Experiencing The 606

One of the highlights of the Studio was the tour of The 606 trail, as it travels through the Chicago neighborhoods as an elevated trail. There are several unique design features to The 606 including the development of pocket parks along the trail for urban camping. A blue rubberized surface on the side of the trail was designed for runners, but also serves as a safety feature by encouraging walkers and children to stay on the blue line. One of most valuable lessons that the City of Chicago and Trust for Public Land shared was the importance of including artists in the planning and design of The 606 and ways to include art and landscape design to improve the experience for walkers and bicyclists.

Bike tour of The 606

Inspiration for Akron

Studio #3 inspired the Akron team to reexamine our strategies for socioeconomic mixing and ways to enhance our community relationship building. Pulling from the work in Chicago, we intend to engage artists in our trail development, examine the potential of urban camping programs along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, and explore the potential for partnerships and collaborations between for-profit and non-profit organizations.

Howard Parr takes in Greater Grand Crossing; photo credit: Brandon Fields

Without opportunities for in-depth study, the processes behind and nuances of the civic commons can be missed. Studio #3 offered a chance to learn from Chicago and bring those lessons home as we explore issues together in this great learning experience.

Tactical advice sessions; photo credit: Brandon Fields

Daniel M. Rice is President & CEO of Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and the convener of the Akron Civic Commons demonstration.

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.

A New Path for Urban Philanthropy

image credit: City of Philadelphia

By Shawn McCaney

Former Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ recent article in the Atlantic Monthly’s City Lab Blog points to Mayor Kenney’s Rebuild Initiative as a “hopeful trend in citywide, city-coordinated philanthropy.” We are likewise hopeful that Rebuild will be seen as a new national model for public-private partnerships focused on community reinvestment. Williams rightly applauds Mayor Kenney’s leadership in establishing not only a bold vision, but an investment framework with strategic goals focused on promoting equity, engagement, and economic opportunity.

While we were inspired by Mayor Kenney’s vision, our landmark support for Rebuild was primarily motivated by the Mayor’s commitment to embracing a data-driven investment strategy that seeks to direct the most resources to the neighborhoods with the greatest need. Our investment in Rebuild was largely informed and inspired by our partnership with the Knight Foundation on Reimagining the Civic Commons, an initiative that focuses on the creative reimagining of public spaces and civic assets to promote high levels of community engagement that has since expanded to four other cities.

Also critically important to the Foundation is the Mayor’s commitment to an extensive program of engagement with City Council and community residents to inform and guide the implementation of Rebuild. The long-term sustainability of these investments can only be assured when residents are involved in, are proud of, and can feel ownership of their neighborhood parks, recreation centers and libraries.

William Penn Foundation’s $100 million commitment to Rebuild ranks among the largest private gifts ever given for parks and public spaces in the country. But as Mayor Williams acknowledges, similarly large gifts are often directed at downtown “signature” parks, plazas, and public spaces in affluent areas of cities. Rebuild has garnered national attention because it stands apart; at its core, Rebuild is about investing in the neighborhood parks, recreation centers, and libraries that residents across Philadelphia use every day. These spaces are essential to quality of life in neighborhoods and communities across the city.

image credit: City of Philadelphia

We believe Rebuild is an example of what an effective and impactful partnership between the philanthropic and governmental sectors can look like. We hope other cities and communities will follow Philadelphia’s lead by forming strategic, data-driven investment initiatives that advance equity, engagement, and neighborhood quality of life.

Shawn McCaney is executive director of William Penn Foundation. In 2014, he led the formation of a partnership with the Knight Foundation to pilot Reimagining the Civic Commons in Philadelphia.

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