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.

Making Moments

Garfield Park Powerhouse; photo credit: CAIC

By Isis Ferguson

On a sunny February day, members of the Chicago Arts and Industry Commons (CAIC) team and our programming colleagues from the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life (APL) initiative visited Garfield Park Industrial Arts, one of three assets the CAIC conveners are in the early stages of reimagining. The sites are owned and managed by the Chicago Park District and sit on the edge of a residential neighborhood, an Amtrak rail line, and in a section of the renown Garfield Park Conservatory that is typically not open for public use. With the unseasonably warm weather, we opted for a leisurely exploration of the two facilities that make up Garfield Park Industrial Arts: 13 former horse stables and a large, adjacent powerhouse.

Garfield Park Powerhouse; photo credit: CAIC

We strolled along the cobblestone path between the sites, our heels clicking in the crisp air as we inspected the row of old wooden stables that are in varying stages of deterioration. We next toured the interior of the powerhouse with its imposing industrial remains—equipment that in past decades powered other Chicago park facilities.

The purpose of our visit was to determine whether it would be feasible to host a collaborative arts marketplace in late spring/early summer of 2017 on the grounds of the Garfield Park Industrial Arts. As the discussion and site visit went on, the “Could we host…” shifted throughout the site visit to “Should we host…” an arts marketplace?

Demonstrate by doing

‘Demonstrate by doing’ is a tenet of Chicago’s civic commons work. And as newcomers to ethical redevelopment projects on the west side of the city, our strategies of participating as a new kid on the block require us to develop tactics that balance needs assessment (what have stakeholders voiced would be helpful), asset inventory (what of value already exists) and engagement (involvement and communication in authentic, productive ways).

Questions we asked ourselves during the walkthrough and planning session:

How do we, as the newest stewards of underused spaces, introduce individuals who live around the facilities to the assets? How do we respectfully welcome a people to a place they “know” but could come to know and use in new ways?

Vends & Vibes; photo credit: Sara Pooley

First moves

Early conversations with our civic commons collaborators at the Chicago Park District and feedback from community forums underscored that adults in the neighborhood need jobs and youth need pro-social enrichment activities as well as employment. With that in mind, is the production of an arts marketplace appropriate as the first move? Even if the marketplace showcases local west side artists and affords us the opportunity to establish new relationships with makers, a marketplace might send the wrong signals. First moves are important moves. They determine if you will be permitted subsequent moves.

Years ago the City of Chicago ran a marketplace out of the stables. If we produce our version of an arts marketplace, based on APL’s existing marketplace model called Vends + Vibes, will potential patrons think we are that same entity who produced the City of Chicago marketplace years ago? Will people attribute their positive or negative impressions of the past marketplace to CAIC?

And our most significant question: should we ask people, particularly community members from economically struggling neighborhoods, to spend money to welcome them to a space? Probably not.

Vends & Vibes; photo credit: Sara Pooley

“Make and Take”

Developing economic activity is an important element of civic commons projects. A marketplace where creative entrepreneurs sell their items, make profit, and generate a customer base is positive small business development. Ultimately though, during our walk through the Garfield Park facilities, we determined we will delay hosting Vends + Vibes on the west side. Instead, as a way to gesture toward the future use of the buildings, and production and skills training related to wood products, we determined a more effective way to announce new activity, partnerships, and possibilities for the spaces can be achieved through a “Make and Take” spring/summer event.

We will invite a handful of designers and artists from the neighborhood and surrounding communities, who work with wood to showcase their work. Selling will be possible, but not the primary focus. Residents and visitors will be invited to participate in short, free demonstrations to make a simple wood object that they can take away with them. Current Chicago Park District trades people who specialize in carpentry and design will be asked to lead the “take” workshops. The making will reference or mimic the kind of education, training, and production slated to take place in both the stables and the powerhouse once they are redesigned and renovated. The Garfield Park Industrial Arts “Make and Take” framework will encourage social and economic mixing. Integration and interaction—not just sharing space—will be encouraged through activity.

Isis Ferguson is Associate Director of City and Community Strategy for Place Lab at University of Chicago.

If you build it, will they come?

Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

By Alexa Bush

Our work in Detroit is situated within a community that lacks many of the quality public spaces where we envision economic mixing would occur: the park, the vibrant Main Street sidewalk, the coffee shop, the shady place to stroll. As we begin constructing some of these physical assets, we know this transformation will create significant physical change in the neighborhood. Hundreds of vacant lots and houses, several vacant commercial storefronts, and a vacant former high school building will be activated and transformed over the course of our work. While our hope is for this activity to create a number of positive outcomes for the communities in which it sits, this process will bring new investment, potentially new neighbors and comes in a context in which fears and concern about displacement are constant topics of conversation, reflecting perceptions about the experience of urban redevelopment in cities and neighborhoods across the US, including Detroit.

photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

We believe this reinvestment has the possibility to create inclusive growth and benefit residents who have stayed through tough times. We are thinking hard about how to address the fear of gentrification, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the other as these investments take place. Keenly aware of the history of racism and segregation in Detroit’s past urban growth, we believe it will take more than just the creation of physical assets to entice a diversity of people to come use them; it will also require a change to the culture and thinking it which they operate, and an active approach to including and inviting people to join and to participate in their creation.

Seeding social infrastructure for economic mixing

Programming can provide critical groundwork for the coming changes, as pop up and temporary events that take place in these currently vacant spaces will set the tone for the way people feel about them in the future. Having an inclusive process by which the community participates in the creation of these assets helps ensure that people shape their direction and convey that the changes are truly for their benefit. Additionally, there is not a lot of mixing between the university and neighborhood communities. Building a sense of trust will be a key step in forging those relationships that lead to true exchange. As many in the neighborhood have developed strong bonds and shared purpose around stewardship of the neighborhood in the face of disinvestment, what will be the future cause that people rally around as investment returns? We must begin by growing the social infrastructure to seed these networks and connections among people in order for our future assets to provide them a place to build and grow.

Livernois Better Block; photo credit: Alexa Bush

Storefront Stories

One of our earliest ideas for encouraging a culture that promotes mixing was to address the current fears and reservations about change. We wanted to create a space for people to talk and build empathy with others in the community through our Storefront Stories events. We piloted our first Storefront Stories session last spring, to which we invited a wide cross section of individuals from a number of communities: existing residents from the Fitzgerald, Bagley, University District and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods, business owners, property owners, students, staff and faculty from both universities and potential developers. The group was intentional, small, and started with people with whom we had existing relationships, building off of the social capital that exists across our team. This approach also ensured that we got a diverse cross-section of individuals to attend by sending personal invitations as opposed to a more generic marketing approach.

Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

At the event, we set up a number of small tables with five seats a piece, and each table centerpiece had a jar full of questions, an ice-breaker to get a conversation going. The questions ranged from sharing past experiences, impressions about the neighborhood and hopes and fears about its future potential. We requested that people sit with others they didn’t know, and we had everyone switch seats half way through the event.

Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

Overall, Storefront Stories achieved its early goal of creating a setting for people of diverse backgrounds to meet and have a positive experience of exchange. We received encouraging feedback from surveys and had to break up the tables for the evening at the end of the event. While this event was highly structured, we hope to build on it through subsequent programming.

Unresolved questions

Questions remain as to whether this mixing will continue happening organically outside of the structure of the civic commons events and within the assets that we are soon to construct. Are there particular programs, rituals or events that can shape a new culture that is welcoming and creates a sense of generosity that encourages exchange? Will this type of exchange build from our efforts to develop nascent social networks and relationships when given a place to grow in a new, high quality public realm? Is building from existing social networks a scalable strategy? Do we have enough diversity across our existing relationships to be truly inclusive? We will continue to challenge ourselves with these questions as we continue with our work.

photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

Alexa Bush is Senior City Planner for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.

Can parks save Philadelphia?

Philadelphia civic commons

By Kathryn Ott Lovell

Recently, Philadelphia Magazine’s ThinkFest asked me to consider, “Are Parks the Key to Philly’s Future?” I spoke of Rebuild, a new initiative that will shape Philly for generations by investing $500 million in the city’s neighborhoods to revitalize parks, recreation centers, playgrounds and libraries. Rebuild gives us a chance to use what we’ve already learned through Philadelphia’s work as the first city to embark on Reimagining the Civic Commons by expanding it across the entire city.

Reimagining the Civic Commons believes that when done right, investments in place can improve outcomes for communities. Rebuild holds the same belief, with two values that will guide investment. First and foremost, Rebuild will promote equity by investing in neighborhoods that are in greatest need. Rebuild will also encourage economic growth by investing in neighborhoods that are growing or otherwise transitioning, presenting an opportunity to drive additional investment and stabilize the community.


Rebuild is a key initiative in Mayor Kenney’s first year in office and it has three goals: revitalize parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, and libraries; promote economic opportunity, especially for those who are underserved and under-employed; and empower and engage with communities in a meaningful way. Support for the initiative has been strong among citizens, elected officials and funders alike, indicating that in a time when we are divided as a city, state, and country, public spaces may be more important than ever.

Philadelphia has one of the highest influxes of millennials of any major city, but also one of the highest poverty rates. And even though our neighborhoods have become more racially integrated, our city is incredibly economically segregated. We’re not the only ones. According to Joe Cortright of City Observatory, since the 1970s, the percentage of American families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods has doubled. Middle income neighborhoods are all but disappearing.


Americans have become increasingly insular citizens. Instead of using parks, recreation centers and libraries, we join private gyms, have private pools, and order our books on Amazon, if not downloading the text straight to a tablet. In fact, since 1950 the population of the U.S. has roughly doubled, but today we have 800 times as many private pools as we did then. Today, fewer than 20 percent spend time with their neighbors, and a full third of people say they have no interactions with their neighbors at all, according to Cortright.

Since our first work on Reimagining the Civic Commons, and now with Rebuild, we have a better understanding of our need to come together—and to invest in what brings us together. It’s not Facebook where our feeds tell us only what we want to hear. It’s not TV or our iPads where we only watch what we want to see. It’s not our homes where we park our cars, close our doors and set our alarms. Instead, it’s our public spaces—parks, recreations centers, libraries—that draw us together as a people whose greatest commonality is our diversity.


We need these places, now more than ever, where we are compelled to sit next to someone on a bench, and pet their dog, and make remarks about the weather. Where our kids will meet and play together, and where we will make connections that will ultimately build respect and empathy for our common man. I believe parks can do all of that– magically, quickly, and, all things considered, pretty inexpensively. And so, I changed my mind; parks aren’t only key to our future, they may just be the salvation of it.

Kathryn Ott Lovell is Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

Economic mixing at the ice rink

Fire pits at the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

By Dorchelle Spence

Ice skating outdoors at the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink was a novel experience for most who visited Mississippi River Park this winter. Despite the different backgrounds of skaters and spectators, everyone typically shared three main attributes: enduring the sometimes frigid winter weather, inexperience on the ice, and a hometown pride spurred by views of the downtown Memphis cityscape and the Mississippi River. Friendly offers of ice skating tips and impromptu empathetic lessons gestured toward an open and caring atmosphere.

Fostering pride in place

“It made me proud to be a Memphian,” said David Thorne, father of an 18-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, who brought his wife and children from neighboring Midtown to the rink on more than one occasion. A spokesperson for Neighborhood Christian Centers, who brought 40 inner-city middle school students to the rink, said, “Our students had a blast and were extremely grateful.”

photo courtesy of Riverfront Development Corporation

Programming to spark conversations

Programming around Fourth Bluff Ice Rink included fire pits and a food and beverage vendor that combined to foster chances for casual exchanges among varying demographic groups. “The fire pits were awesome,” said Thorne without prompting. “We pulled the chairs up close to the fire and visited with people from all over the city.”

Although we want such conversations to be every day occurrences, they are not — yet.

According to Thorne, “We home school our son and, when we told our association members about this opportunity, they said to us: ‘You can’t go down there. Downtown isn’t safe.’ Not so, I told them. Downtown is the safest place in the city. We go down there all the time and we love it.”

photo courtesy of: Riverfront Development Corporation

We’re all in this together

Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and a partner in the Reimagining the Civic Commons work, explains it this way. “The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink provided a place in downtown that was completely unique to Memphis. It created a safe zone – a place where people of different races, economic backgrounds and ethnicities were essentially on a level playing field. Few people knew how to ice skate, so most people were experiencing something for the first time and doing it together. This created a foxhole atmosphere: a feeling that we’re all in this together.”

The intimate interactions at Fourth Bluff Ice Rink showed us the hearts of Memphians as open and caring. This is the city we know and love, and we’re delighted that this effort helped us illustrate that this remains the essence of who we are.

Dorchelle Spence is vice president of Riverfront Development Corporation.

Civic Commons Studio #1: Opportunities for Akron

Akron's Civic Commons team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

By Daniel M. Rice

The first Reimagining the Civic Commons Studio in Philadelphia was an incredibly inspiring experience as we engaged in stimulating conversations, networked with national thought leaders and returned to Akron motivated and ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of our Akron Civic Commons. One of the highlights of the Civic Commons Studio was the structure and organization of the learning network which enabled us to experience in-depth conversations with fellow practitioners and speakers and the opportunity to learn and share best practices from across the country. Some of the key insights from our experience included the following observations:

Environmental sustainability as value creation

The presentation by Lionel Bradford with the Greening of Detroit inspired us to think about how urban agriculture can be used to address workforce development.  This session underscored the importance of cultivating and nurturing relationships with residents and community leaders to develop programs that address both environmental sustainability and value creation.  Due to the similarities with our Summit Lake neighborhood, we realized that we can spread the benefits more broadly across the community if we share best practices with our fellow city leaders, and we look forward to following up with Lionel to learn more about his program.

Lionel Bradford, The Greening of Detroit reports out at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Using our values and best principles to frame our civic commons work

During the session on “What are the opportunities to share resources among assets and what are the associated challenges,” some of the key phrases that we noted were transparency, seeking understanding, shared vision, being present, and honest and open dialogue.  While these principles sound logical, there can be the tendency to assume that these practices take place rather than being intentional about our behavior.  We particularly enjoyed the conversation around daylighting leadership and lifting up new and younger leaders, and we are proud that many of our team members are millennials and represent our young talent.  The importance of neighborhood navigators to share the stories of our assets also resonated with our team, along with the opportunity to build relationships across assets through story-telling.

Kathryn Ott Lovell shares the potential of the Civic Commons to daylight leadership; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

The importance of playing with a full deck

One of the highlights of the Civic Commons Studio was Dr. john powell’s remarks regarding targeted universalism and his definitions of public, private, non-public and non-private spaces.  How do we provide access for all members of our community? How do we get everyone to start at the same place (even when they need a little help to get there)?  We are obligated to ensure that all members of society are engaged in our civic commons assets, because if we are not “playing with a full deck,” communities suffer.

Dr. john powell presents at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Finally, Carol Coletta captured the continued evolution of Reimagining the Civic Commons as she described how civic commons is evolving from physical assets to a way of doing business together as a community that asks, “how can we cultivate relationships rather than ‘civic engagement’”? and how can we stop asking “what do you want?” and ask “what can we steward together?”

Carol Coletta shares out at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Our Akron team returned home more determined than ever to evolve our strategies to increase civic engagement, promote economic integration, cultivate environmental sustainability and develop value creation.

Akron Civic Commons team; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Daniel M. Rice is President & CEO of Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and the convener of Akron’s Reimagining the 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.

Oak Cliff Inspiration

Civic Commons Learning Journey: Dallas; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

By Bridget Marquis

Earlier this month the Civic Commons Learning Network held its first learning journey to Dallas. With Jason Roberts and Krista Nightengale of Better Block Foundation as our co-hosts, we explored the neighborhood of Oak Cliff, its changing narrative and the tactics and strategies being employed to foster neighborhood pride and encourage civic actions.

After a day touring the Bishop Arts District, billed as “Dallas’ most independent neighborhood,” The Wild Detectives, an independent bookstore/literary hub/coffee bar/venue located in a bungalow on a residential street just a block away, and the infamous Texas Theatre, where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in 1963, we had a chance to sit down and talk with neighborhood leaders about programming and activation.

Jason Roberts, Better Block Foundation; photo credit: Bridget Marquis

While many of the spaces we visited in Oak Cliff are not publicly owned and operated, they function as civic spaces based on their commitment to the neighborhood and offer a number of takeaways for the Civic Commons:

Act as a connector space.

By providing a vehicle for others to connect, you can foster a community of potential programmers. Whether these communities are driven by a shared passion, such as the literary scene that now calls The Wild Detectives home, or a commitment to the neighborhood, as Better Block has catalyzed, acting as a platform for others can reveal programming that a programmer on staff could likely never dream up. And note that community isn’t a monolith – there are many overlapping communities in all cities. Can you position your space to be in the middle of that venn diagram?

Jason Roberts, Better Block Foundation; Mary Katherine McElroy, Texas Theatre; Andrew de la Casa-Huertas, The Wild Detectives; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Recognize free isn’t really free.

Consider free programming as a value, though a business model must be developed to support that value. The Wild Detectives sells coffee, beer and food to offset the costs associated with offering free programming. You can even consider revenue sharing on sales to support those providing their content for free.

Invite others in.

Find people you admire in the neighborhood and help them show off what they do. Oftentimes people are just waiting for that invitation. But the responsibility is on you to do the asking.

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Partnerships yield programming.

For Oak Cliff organizations, partnerships are the greatest source of programming. Partners bring their own networks, generating greater awareness and exposure for the venue and neighborhood. Existing, even staid, organizations have found value in reintroducing themselves through these small civic-minded spaces. One good example from Oak Cliff is the political satire group Bar Politics and Dallas Independent School Board mashup which disarmed board members and citizens alike allowing for a more productive conversation.

The Wild Detectives; photo credit: Bridget Marquis

Feature flexibility.

Don’t be limited by the obvious use of space. An intersection can be a pétanque court, an old gas station can be a co-working space. Create chances for others to test an idea they have always wanted to do. Take advantage of temporary as an entry point for permanent.

Create right-sized spaces.

Consider the intimacy of space and turnout expectations. If you start with a small space, even a small turnout will feel successful. You can almost always grow to a larger space over time as demand requires.

Bridget Marquis is director of the Civic Commons Learning Network with U3 Advisors.

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