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.

Collaboration as constellation of knowledge

04.17.17
St. Laurence School board-up project

By Nootan Bharani, AIA

Collaboration is difficult. Increasingly, knowledge domains have become siloed, and the myriad areas of expertise are hidden behind walls, often uncharted, and unbeknownst to those that most need access. In order to address work in our societies, formal agreements are regularly required to bring different viewpoints together. Group work — a commonplace occurrence in high school English class, where everyone is deputized to think, act and share leadership — must be carefully thought out in our adult world, so that each consultancy receives a fair share of pie – and liability. But what happens when the task changes or the problem at the heart of the work shifts? What if the dilemma swings from a technical issue to one of social cues? If the initial intention of a team was to bring new art exhibit space to a neighborhood, but the reality is that the community wants and needs a space for dance, performance and healing arts. Is the team nimble enough to quickly pivot?

Team evolution is a constant

Over the past two years of working with each other and integrating into the ecosystem of organizations led by Theaster Gates, the Place Lab team, initially brought together to document and demonstrate a path forward for ethical urban redevelopment, has grown more and more nimble in identifying and addressing challenges. We have found that problems weave in and out of knowledge domains quickly. Different teammates’ efforts wax and wane and then wax again, depending on the course of our community engagement and redevelopment efforts. The team continues to evolve, the processes grow and progress, as the scale of our efforts change. The work can move forward quickly through many iterations as each teammate applies knowledge and expertise, untethered by traditional expectations within her or his field.

St. Laurence School board-up project

Departure from the standard approach

The St. Laurence School board-up project is an example of collaboration and agility within the Place Lab team — it is a major departure from a standard construction task. One of the first imperatives in adopting an existing building, especially one that has been vacant for more than a dozen years, is to clean up and board up. But St. Laurence was turned into a community artwork with over 100 patterned boards, created by young people from the neighborhood during their public school summer program. The processes involved conceiving the program, engaging the local public school administration, involving a well-known Chicago mural artist, and convincing the board-up company to provide boards and then to hang them after they are works of art. We then celebrated with a parade including music by a local acclaimed artist and original artworks of parade puppets, a certificate ceremony for the youth participants and a back-to-school supply give-away. It was far from standard. The project couldn’t have happened as smoothly and with such intentional vision without input from each team member. In this gesture, a deviation from the norm, the neighborhood youth from a nearby public school had an opportunity to literally put their thumbprint into the process of re-making this space, and they now have the confidence to boast stewardship in and for their neighborhood.

St. Laurence School board-up project

The projects in the Reimagining the Civic Commons portfolio will benefit most from many viewpoints, varied expertise, and agility of idea and implementation. The indeterminate nature of the problems of ethical redevelopment require us to work as a constellation of knowledge, pulling each other toward as well as away from issues, providing expertise and perspective at once. Together, we are prepared and dexterous to Reimagine the Civic Commons.

Nootan Bharani is a licensed architect and Lead Design Manager of Place Lab at University of Chicago.

If you build it, will they come?

03.20.17
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.

Learning and Line Dancing in Dallas

                 
04.21.17
Civic Commons Learning Journey: Dallas; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

By Jamie Gauthier

In March 2017, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Dallas with three of my colleagues, for the first Reimagining the Civic Commons Learning Journey. Along for the journey, were me, Director of Public Partnerships at the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Erin Engelstad, the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Park Stewardship Manager, Meg Wise, Executive Director of Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, and George Matysik, Executive Director of Philadelphia Parks Alliance. Below, is a summation of our group’s thoughts, following this informative, fun trip, separated into appreciations for Better Block’s work and approach and some critiques or challenges we’d like to pose to the Better Block crew.

Meg Wise, Erin Engelstad, Jamie Gauthier and George Matysik

Appreciations of Better Block’s work

We appreciated Better Block’s approach to creativity and experimentation, and the organization’s willingness to, just, “go out and try stuff”. As practitioners, we often feel constrained by the rules, politics, and hierarchies that exist in Philadelphia, and wish for more creative freedom in our work. Meg, for instance, is working on a project that will bring play spaces to libraries—first, as a pilot, but then, citywide. Though this project holds great potential, some components have been hard to advance, as they represent a dramatic departure from our library staff’s current culture. George, too, has been leading an effort to expand the way that communities view and use recreation centers (aiming to make them hubs of community) but, has also faced resistance. In spite of these challenges, we all realize that Philly is a “City of Neighborhoods”, and that these neighborhoods are changing, every day. We see a great need and a great opportunity for our public and civic spaces to change, too, so that they retain their relevance and important role in public life.

George Matysik talks with Lynn Ross and Jamie Gauthier; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

We appreciated that Better Block’s approach offered an inexpensive way to both envision and transform spaces, in concert with community. One of the biggest barriers to changing a space can be gaining broad engagement around and enthusiasm for a new vision and use. Better Block’s approach, and the tools it makes available, allows for a low-cost way of transforming a space, actively engages the community (through work days) in doing so, and even allows for community members to temporarily use spaces in new ways. It seems that the level of buy-in created by such a process could go a long way in fueling a community’s advocacy for the funding and policy changes needed to bring a vision to life over the long-term. Both the Conservancy and the Parks Alliance can imagine engaging with Philadelphia’s communities in such a way, to create new visions for parks and recreation centers, particularly, as the City’s Rebuild initiative ramps up.

Jason Roberts; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

We appreciated Better Block’s marketing savvy, and the way in which their projects and installations “popped”. From its bike tours, to its “Oak Cliff” branding, to the way it activated a stagnant business district, there is a coolness and a sexiness to Better Block’s approach that seemed to create a buzz and an interest (lending to the success of revitalization projects over the long-term). While the Conservancy has been able to employ this in some of its projects and programs– with Parks on Tap, for example, a mobile beer garden that visits parks throughout the city and through projects like Swim Philly, the Philly team is interested in doing more to bring the “sexy” to Philly’s public spaces, and to our work. George, for example, muses that coverage from certain news outlets (PlanPhilly comes to mind) would attract attention and support for the Alliance’s work, but that improving neighborhood recreation centers isn’t necessarily the topic that reporters want to craft their next “hot” story around.

Erin Engelstad; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

In looking at the Klyde Warren Park project, the most ideal public space we could imagine, we came away with the thought that it is okay to pay a lot for high impact projects. In Philadelphia, we sometimes have a tendency to operate from a place of lack, when sometimes the work demands and deserves, different. Our big learning here is that big changes can be expensive (and that’s ok).

Panel on Klyde Warren Park; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Challenges, from us, to the Better Block Crew

Our biggest critique of the visit is that we did not see or hear enough of the community that Better Block exists within and holds up as a partner in its work. This was a sentiment shared, unanimously, among the Philly team. It stuck out as a sore thumb, even on the first full day of our time with Better Block, when in the organization’s initial presentation, there was no context given to us travelers for the Oak Cliff community. And thereafter, even as Oak Cliff was described as a majority-Hispanic neighborhood, and even as Oak Cliff’s revitalization was described as inclusive and at the behest of the residents, we did not see those people represented. We didn’t see them present in pictures, we didn’t see them present amongst the landholders and entrepreneurs participating in the panel discussion, and left without a clear sense of their voice and perspective. As a result, we had lingering questions. How much and how, exactly, was the community was engaged (and who was engaged)? Is Better Block’s strategy one that is advancing equitable development (or is it leading to gentrification and displacement)? And, if the community is in favor, where are they?

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Certainly these challenges—those that deal with inclusion and equity– are not ones foreign to our team. They touch our efforts, too, particularly, coming from Philadelphia, the poorest big city, and one that still struggles to decrease its inequities. Perhaps, too, this is why this piece of the work showed up so starkly, for us. We want to take home Better Block’s “coolness”, but, we want to ensure our communities are leading and there– every step of the way.

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

In all, we are thankful for the learning opportunity this trip presented, and come back to our own work with a drive to be more creative and with a little more willingness to break the rules. The journey also provided our team with a bonding experience, an opportunity to get to know each other and each other’s work, replete with some amazingly fun Dallas line dancing and karaoke, on our last evening. We thank The Better Block Team, the Knight Foundation, and Reimagining the Civic Commons for opening up Better Block’s work and the Oak Cliff community, to us.

Jamie Gauthier is senior director of public partnerships for Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Trust the Key Players

           
04.24.17
Cenceptual mural plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

By Ryan Jones

It only takes trust, strong and talented partners, extensive planning, and the determination of each organization to make the collaboration more important than any of the constant challenges and opportunities to ignore the needs of other partners. Trust is earned by people working together on common challenges – learning by doing and building trust in the process.

Memphis has a history of projects that operate in a vacuum. Seemingly good ideas on their own, they often floundered when faced with the realities of execution. Observed from afar, these past projects may have seemed out-of-touch or odd in their exclusion of other community members, business leaders or civic partners.

Taking this lesson from the past and applying it to the Fourth Bluff, our version of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, we’ve endeavored to find all of the key stakeholders in our project on the front-end and enable them to take a fully invested role in the success and execution of what we’re trying to accomplish. Looking at the area encompassed by the Fourth Bluff, we realized that an impressive number of community partners and businesses could (and should!) be involved, both physically, monetarily and in the forms of the varied expertise they could lend.

Rendering of RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

Taking full advantage of a diverse roster

But bringing together a great group of talented partners and stakeholders is only half the battle. Once we assembled our team, it was important that everyone trust each other to do what they do best, respectively, while also working as a team. This means clearly knowing everyone’s strengths and advantages and using them when it comes time to work on a project. Taking full advantage of a diverse roster of partners means not only bringing everyone together on paper but to also allow everyone to do what they do best… basically, managing the team and playing to everyone’s strengths. As a result, the Fourth Bluff is developing into what is likely the strongest collaboration of downtown Memphis stakeholders and managers ever assembled. A collaboration that is made even more unique due to many of these stakeholders also being citywide organizations like the Memphis Public Library System, the City of Memphis, UrbanArt Commission and others, as well as the fact that this partnership is not comprised of big businesses, corporations or firms like the typical “downtown” collaboration.

Building confidence

Some prime examples of this team and the execution of its ideas include several Fourth Bluff projects, which are the first hints of a major design investment in the Fourth Bluff. These initial examples have led the way in this collaborative lesson, giving the partners quick, small victories and building confidence amongst themselves and the community for larger, more comprehensive plans in the near future.

1) Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens

2) The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

3) RiverPlay pop-up basketball courts and roller rink on Riverside Drive

Each of these installments relied heavily on various team members’ organizations taking the lead and executing at a high level, all while moving forward at what is a blistering pace for any civic-minded project in Memphis.

photo credit: Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation

Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens

The beer gardens were an instant success. In what was a normally dormant and neglected park space, a team led by the City, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), and our vending partners Mobile Merchants and The TapBox, brought this idea from seed to fruition in a remarkably short period of time. Trusting the City to take the lead on permits and administrative approval, while allowing the RDC to do what it does best in managing the logistics of the park maintenance and staffing, sped this idea along exponentially. The DMC provided vital assistance in funding and event/gaming supplies for the event, as well as promotion via its established channels, and the TapBox and Moblie Merchants were entrusted to do what they do best by bringing the beer, fun, music, and food trucks. By allowing partners to operate freely within their own areas of expertise, while keeping the group abreast of their work, we pulled off something many people thought would never work, in a space no one paid any attention to, in a period of only a few weeks from idea to launch.

photo credit: Ryan Jones

The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

A similar story played out with the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink endeavor. The RDC took the operations lead, as the organization not only oversaw the maintenance of Mississippi River Park where the rink was located, but also had previously done the groundwork and planning for just such an ice rink. Another Fourth Bluff partner, Innovate Memphis, worked hand-in-hand with the RDC and the rest of the team to ensure that all legal and contract work was executed, as well as lending substantial time to social media and communications/media efforts on behalf of the team. We saw Memphians come downtown to the riverfront ice rink in droves, at a period of time in the winter when Memphians aren’t typically looking for outdoor activities. These were not just downtowners, but citizens from all walks of life, all coming together in a space to enjoy an experience that was new to all of them. A collaborative effort led to a uniquely shared experience for Memphis.

photo credit: Jim Weber, The Commercial Appeal

RiverPlay

Finally, our upcoming RiverPlay pop-up installment on Riverside Drive will bring in yet another vital downtown Memphis partner in the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies partnership and collaboration on this pop-up allows the Fourth Bluff team to leverage the team’s substantial following, strong reputation, community cache’ and organizational leadership. Again, the RDC and the City have taken ownership of their roles in this pop-up initiative and in doing so, things have moved smoother than anyone thought possible for an idea that would normally be deemed impossible (shutting down a major downtown traffic artery for three months). We’re confident that even more of our downtown team members and stakeholders, from further DMC involvement to artists, community groups, and residents, will become even more involved as this project continue to unfold, and we’ll take the same lessons of collaboration and trust with us into those next steps.

Conceptual plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

The thing that we as a team keep coming back to with every installment of our project is that a project and a team are stronger by collaborating and working together, than if they stand alone. Letting each partner take the lead when the situation calls for it allows the overall project to succeed in unprecedented ways. Having a collaboration you can trust has been one key lesson we keep on benefiting from along the way.

Ryan Jones is director of communications at University of Memphis School of Law.

From Oak Cliff to Akron: Lessons on stigma

04.10.17
photo credit: Eric Nelson

By Eric Nelson

Overcoming stigma was the subject of a recent learning journey made by members of the Akron Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Core Team. Members traveled to a neighborhood in Dallas named Oak Cliff.

History buffs may recognize the name Oak Cliff as the site where Lee Harvey Oswald, the man allegedly responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was captured inside of the Texas Theatre in 1963. Others may point to Oak Cliff’s earlier connection to the notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s.

Texas Theatre; photo credit: Eric Nelson

More recently, Oak Cliff was largely ignored and left to decline.

But for people who were raised there, and people who could not afford to live elsewhere, the neighborhood of Oak Cliff was simply home.

Consistent with too many neighborhoods with large concentrations of low-income families, Oak Cliff developed a stigma as a place to avoid.

Enter the original Better Block members, Jason Roberts and Amy Wallace Cowan. In 2010, the pair decided to do something about the vacant storefronts, and their neighborhood’s curb appeal. Jason and Amy talked to city officials to get permits to shut off a one-block section of Oak Cliff. With the help of volunteers and local businesses, Jason and Amy reimagined and staged a temporary alternate visual narrative for Oak Cliff. The temporary staging was a hit, drawing hundreds of local residents, city officials, and skeptics alike. Oak Cliff’s resurgence was born.

Host for the Oak Cliff Learning Journey was none other than Jason Roberts himself. This motivating and highly informative study tour provided the history, challenges, and triumphs of the entire Oak Cliff reimagining process.

Jason Roberts leads the learning journey in Oak Cliff; photo credit: Eric Nelson

Oak Cliff, in many ways, is comparable to the Summit Lake community of Akron. When I returned home from the learning journey, my cheeks were sore from smiling! The “before” image in my mind was present day Summit Lake. But my “after” images were that of a reimagined Akron — an Akron where the Towpath Trail is the main artery providing nourishment to Downtown, Park East, and Summit Lake seamlessly.

Top Five Applicable Takeaways From the Oak Cliff Learning Journey:

Reimagine bigger! It is encouraged to have lofty, community-driven visions for what could be.

Pop-ups help to promote collective vision. Create fast and cheap visual possibilities in partnership with the community.

Be intentionally inclusive with planning. Akron is stronger when resources are shared by all.

Be passionate and courageous for the Akron RCC project! When people ask, “Why?” redirect with the more relevant question, “Why not?”

Control the narrative. What we say about our community, others will say about our community, even if it has not yet come to pass.

Civic Commons Learning Journey to Dallas

Eric Nelson is Executive Director of Students with a Goal (SWAG) in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood.

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.

Trust the Key Players

04.24.17
Cenceptual mural plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

By Ryan Jones

It only takes trust, strong and talented partners, extensive planning, and the determination of each organization to make the collaboration more important than any of the constant challenges and opportunities to ignore the needs of other partners. Trust is earned by people working together on common challenges – learning by doing and building trust in the process.

Memphis has a history of projects that operate in a vacuum. Seemingly good ideas on their own, they often floundered when faced with the realities of execution. Observed from afar, these past projects may have seemed out-of-touch or odd in their exclusion of other community members, business leaders or civic partners.

Taking this lesson from the past and applying it to the Fourth Bluff, our version of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, we’ve endeavored to find all of the key stakeholders in our project on the front-end and enable them to take a fully invested role in the success and execution of what we’re trying to accomplish. Looking at the area encompassed by the Fourth Bluff, we realized that an impressive number of community partners and businesses could (and should!) be involved, both physically, monetarily and in the forms of the varied expertise they could lend.

Rendering of RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

Taking full advantage of a diverse roster

But bringing together a great group of talented partners and stakeholders is only half the battle. Once we assembled our team, it was important that everyone trust each other to do what they do best, respectively, while also working as a team. This means clearly knowing everyone’s strengths and advantages and using them when it comes time to work on a project. Taking full advantage of a diverse roster of partners means not only bringing everyone together on paper but to also allow everyone to do what they do best… basically, managing the team and playing to everyone’s strengths. As a result, the Fourth Bluff is developing into what is likely the strongest collaboration of downtown Memphis stakeholders and managers ever assembled. A collaboration that is made even more unique due to many of these stakeholders also being citywide organizations like the Memphis Public Library System, the City of Memphis, UrbanArt Commission and others, as well as the fact that this partnership is not comprised of big businesses, corporations or firms like the typical “downtown” collaboration.

Building confidence

Some prime examples of this team and the execution of its ideas include several Fourth Bluff projects, which are the first hints of a major design investment in the Fourth Bluff. These initial examples have led the way in this collaborative lesson, giving the partners quick, small victories and building confidence amongst themselves and the community for larger, more comprehensive plans in the near future.

1) Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens

2) The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

3) RiverPlay pop-up basketball courts and roller rink on Riverside Drive

Each of these installments relied heavily on various team members’ organizations taking the lead and executing at a high level, all while moving forward at what is a blistering pace for any civic-minded project in Memphis.

photo credit: Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation

Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens

The beer gardens were an instant success. In what was a normally dormant and neglected park space, a team led by the City, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), and our vending partners Mobile Merchants and The TapBox, brought this idea from seed to fruition in a remarkably short period of time. Trusting the City to take the lead on permits and administrative approval, while allowing the RDC to do what it does best in managing the logistics of the park maintenance and staffing, sped this idea along exponentially. The DMC provided vital assistance in funding and event/gaming supplies for the event, as well as promotion via its established channels, and the TapBox and Moblie Merchants were entrusted to do what they do best by bringing the beer, fun, music, and food trucks. By allowing partners to operate freely within their own areas of expertise, while keeping the group abreast of their work, we pulled off something many people thought would never work, in a space no one paid any attention to, in a period of only a few weeks from idea to launch.

photo credit: Ryan Jones

The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

A similar story played out with the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink endeavor. The RDC took the operations lead, as the organization not only oversaw the maintenance of Mississippi River Park where the rink was located, but also had previously done the groundwork and planning for just such an ice rink. Another Fourth Bluff partner, Innovate Memphis, worked hand-in-hand with the RDC and the rest of the team to ensure that all legal and contract work was executed, as well as lending substantial time to social media and communications/media efforts on behalf of the team. We saw Memphians come downtown to the riverfront ice rink in droves, at a period of time in the winter when Memphians aren’t typically looking for outdoor activities. These were not just downtowners, but citizens from all walks of life, all coming together in a space to enjoy an experience that was new to all of them. A collaborative effort led to a uniquely shared experience for Memphis.

photo credit: Jim Weber, The Commercial Appeal

RiverPlay

Finally, our upcoming RiverPlay pop-up installment on Riverside Drive will bring in yet another vital downtown Memphis partner in the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies partnership and collaboration on this pop-up allows the Fourth Bluff team to leverage the team’s substantial following, strong reputation, community cache’ and organizational leadership. Again, the RDC and the City have taken ownership of their roles in this pop-up initiative and in doing so, things have moved smoother than anyone thought possible for an idea that would normally be deemed impossible (shutting down a major downtown traffic artery for three months). We’re confident that even more of our downtown team members and stakeholders, from further DMC involvement to artists, community groups, and residents, will become even more involved as this project continue to unfold, and we’ll take the same lessons of collaboration and trust with us into those next steps.

Conceptual plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

The thing that we as a team keep coming back to with every installment of our project is that a project and a team are stronger by collaborating and working together, than if they stand alone. Letting each partner take the lead when the situation calls for it allows the overall project to succeed in unprecedented ways. Having a collaboration you can trust has been one key lesson we keep on benefiting from along the way.

Ryan Jones is director of communications at University of Memphis School of Law.

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