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.

And then? Sustainability Through Arts + Culture

02.11.17
Stony Island Arts Bank
photo credit: Rebuild Foundation

By Theaster Gates

There was a building that used to matter. Soaring above its neighbors, the monumental granite and terra cotta structure represented so much more than the commercial activity within its walls. In its vibrant heyday, it was a radical symbol of self-determination for a people historically disenfranchised. The building was theirs, a space created for and by them, the purpose it served greater than the purpose for which it was intended.

And then things changed, as things do. Time passed. The building was abandoned. The pieces that made up its body—its walls, its ceiling, its floor—decayed and crumbled. Its paint peeled. Its fixtures collapsed. This building that used to matter rusted into a beloved cultural memory for the people who could no longer sustain it, and became a monstrous eyesore for the people who did not care to.

Stony Island Arts Bank

photo credit: Eric Allex Rogers

And then the unthinkable happened. This building escaped the wrecking ball. Its ceiling was repaired, its walls reinforced, and its floor strengthened. It was restored—to a point. There are blemishes here and there, distinguished scars intentionally preserved to bridge the past and present. This old, storied building was made ready for a new life.

photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers

photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers

photo credit: Becca Waterloo

photo credit: Becca Waterloo

And then the doors were reopened. People returned, and it filled up with culture and history, artists and scholars, curators and collectors. With the strength of vision and the power of art, the support of old friends and the contributions of new ones, this building that once mattered, mattered once again.

And then…

This is where the celebrated reports about transformation in America’s most disinvested neighborhoods tend to stop—with beautifully restored and reactivated buildings serving as new cultural stages. A feel-good urban story briefly interrupting the narrative of penury, destruction, mayhem. The logical next chapter is often glossed over or ignored because it tends to bring down the room. Having surmounted almost insurmountable odds just to get it done in the first place, nobody wants to be the killjoy asking how spaces reimagined by arts and culture can be sustainable.

Yet if transformation is not sustainable, what is there to celebrate?

In 1983, the United Nations enlisted former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to investigate the question of why industrialization had failed to universally raise living standards. The Brundtland Commission, in its final report Our Common Future, defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report consolidated decades of research, ultimately showing that economic production must go hand-in-hand with ecological health and social equity if sustainable development was to be achieved.

Sustainability is the cornerstone of Chicago’s Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons (CAIC). The CAIC will give new life to a collection of buildings and lots on the city’s disinvested south and west sides. The vision of the CAIC is a system of well-coordinated assets that employ the transformative power of arts and culture to achieve not merely temporary activation, but the economic, environmental, and social sustainability that defines high quality of life.

The core of Chicago’s civic commons network is the Cultural Reinvestment Model, a cyclical system of development that transforms underutilized assets into economic engines capable of generating new development and new capital for reinvestment. In the simplest terms, the Cultural Reinvestment Model is an initial investment in people and place that spurs additional investment in people and place. The revitalization of underutilized properties through adaptive reuse—pedagogy, training, shared tools and resources, job creation and incubation—activates spaces and draw in people, which in turn attracts commerce. Commercial, residential, retail, and manufacturing enterprises now have consumers to serve, and are willing to make investments that support the presence and delivery of amenities. This powerful for-profit and nonprofit engine creates asset stability and ignites economic sustainability.

culturalreinvestmentmodel_11oct2016

While the Cultural Reinvestment Model is focused on driving and sustaining economic growth, the CAIC employs a supporting four-mode framework to redress environmental and social degradation afflicting Chicago’s south and west side communities These four modes—education, resources, wellness, and mobility—remove barriers to access and equity; eschew demolition in favor of preservation and adaptive reuse; integrate neighbors into development efforts and thus promote pride and commitment to place; and teach stewardship for maintenance and longevity of assets. These four modes of investment in both people and place create a healthy urban ecology in which economy, environment, and social sustainability engender and maintain long-lasting prosperity.

By creating a body of civic vitality powered by the heart of arts and culture, the CAIC advances a model of sustainability that underscores the relationship between process, people, and place. Through artist-led transformation, CAIC creates a platform for creative and diverse communities. The Stony Island Arts Bank, the flagship CAIC asset and the reactivated building of the opening story, is just such a platform.

An investment was made in a once-dilapidated bank, and then this created a space where people congregated to immerse themselves in culture and community, and then this brought positive activity to a struggling neighborhood, and then this amplified pride and commitment to place, and then this paved the way for a better model of urban transformation, and then this strengthened the belief that people and place are worthy investments.

And therefore an equitable, sustainable future can be built.

Theaster Gates is the convener of Chicago’s Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons.

A 21st Century Vision for Detroit

02.15.17
photo credit: Alexa Bush

By Alexa Bush

In the last decade, the story of Detroit has transformed from one focused on decline to one about a resurgence. While much of the press on Detroit’s comeback has been around its Greater Downtown, that’s only part of it. Our work with Reimagining the Civic Commons, focused in a neighborhood, is one of several targeted efforts in neighborhoods across Detroit. The Detroit Civic Commons work is located in the area around Livernois Ave and McNichols Rd. This neighborhood developed between the 1920’s and 1950’s as a predominantly single family neighborhood at a time when manufacturing offered the promise of homeownership to everyone, from the wealthiest to the working classes.

Our ambition is to bring greater vibrancy to this neighborhood, reinforcing the efforts of residents and businesses that have persevered and thrived in the face of dramatic economic and social change. We will improve the civic character and quality of life in the neighborhood. However, our vision of urban vitality cannot be a return to a nostalgic dream of the past; rather, it must be forward looking and more adaptive, diverse, integrated and resilient than what came before. We are working with three themes:

Vacant land is our greatest asset

In our project area in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, almost 40 percent of the residential parcels are publicly-owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. While some of these parcels contain structures, the majority, approximately 75 percent, are lots where the structures have been demolished. Rather than think of this land as the missing teeth in the block or a void space in the neighborhood that must be infilled with new structures to feel whole, we seek to use this land to create new, urban landscapes that provide a compelling sense of place and a public commons. These landscapes will also do productive work for the community, such as managing stormwater, producing food, providing access to natural environments, conveying a sense of beauty and care, and making the neighborhood feel complete even without the addition of new buildings on every lot. Vacant land along our commercial corridors is also useful. We’re exploring how attracting select mixed-use and mixed-income multifamily developments can add density, new retail services and a diversity of housing options beyond the single family detached home.

photo credit: Alexa Bush

photo credit: Alexa Bush

Retrofit for biking and walking

Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan has embraced the concept of a “20-Minute Neighborhood” that puts the amenities, services, transit options and civic assets necessary for daily life within a 20-minute walk or bike ride from where residents live. Doing this in a city like Detroit which has historically focused heavily on mobility via the private automobile (even going so far as to remove the public streetcars which once connected our major thoroughfares) means we’re working against the grain of prior urban planning decisions. How do we integrate a more expansive and diverse idea of mobility into our streets? We believe that this kind of walkable environment is not only more attractive to people across many demographic categories, but also more equitable, providing better access and quality of life to the most vulnerable populations: youth, seniors and those without access to a vehicle.

photo credit: Alexa Bush

photo credit: Alexa Bush

Not your old local government

We believe we have the opportunity to reinvent the role of local government as a partner in neighborhood development. As the City government has restructured after municipal bankruptcy, there is new capacity for the City to engage with neighborhoods. But the local government that emerges cannot recreate a 20th century model that was so highly resource-intensive and top-down. It must develop a nimbler, more collaborative model that is more resilient to economic changes, and responsive to the community. This involves “lighter” projects such as pilots and pop-ups to test ideas before investing capital, such as we’ve done this past spring and summer as part of our Civic Commons efforts, working with the Better Block Foundation and local stakeholders including University Commons and the Live6 Alliance to prototype bike lanes on Livernois. It also involves taking a collaborative approach to partnerships with the private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors, as well as residents, to shape the vision and get things done.

These three themes add up to a big question: how do we reimagine and retrofit our twentieth century urban fabric and develop the multi-sector relationships to meet the needs of the twenty-first? Stay tuned—that’s what we’ll be working on for the next three years with Detroit Civic Commons.

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

Can parks save Philadelphia?

02.10.17
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.

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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.

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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.

28659539832_50476cc520_o

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.

The original heart of Memphis

02.17.17

By Maria Fuhrmann

Memphis began at the river, with the flow of goods, trade, and commodities. If it came up the river and into the city, it first went through the area now known as the Fourth Bluff. Nearly two hundred years later we’re bringing a new lens to the role that this part of town can play in the life of Memphis by locating our Reimagining the Civic Commons work here.

memphis-original-commerce

We see many opportunities in drawing Memphians back to this original starting point and revitalizing the Fourth Bluff. It will become a hub for a new civic life based on the intangible commodities of ideas, knowledge and experiences that, when successful, capture the imagination of Memphians and inspire them to take these things back to neighborhoods and communities across the city.

Cossitt Library is the spiritual cornerstone of this initiative. In simple terms, libraries help us learn and empower ourselves by sharing books. What else might we share at the Fourth Bluff to help us learn about each other and what we can do together?

In the past libraries and parks have sometimes been treated like different bands—pick your favorite and cheer them on. At the Fourth Bluff we see the library and parks as part of an ensemble where each of these places and the organizations behind them are playing their unique part of the same tune. If we do it right, this is a tune that will draw Memphians back to the river where our city originated, and give them reason to meet one another in entirely new ways.

pic-1-108

Drawn together in the reimagined Mississippi River Park or Memphis Park, we’ll share new memories of life along the riverfront that open our eyes to the possibilities for similar adventures and learning opportunities throughout Memphis.

The same will happen at Cossitt Library, where we’ll be working to build a place of open and productive civic discourse and discovery. It will grow as a safe place for community conversations where the community can learn about and discuss civic projects—where everyone can be confident that their voice will be heard. Cossitt Library will be a space where wide ranging ideas are discussed freely and openly. This would be a new way for Memphians to bring their ideas to life, and trade and build on them and improve the quality of our civic life.

cossitt-lights-1

But it’s not just about civic purpose and weighty questions about the future of our city. First and foremost we want people to feel that the Fourth Bluff is a fun, pleasant place to learn, grow, and experience life in Memphis. We will be working hard over the next three years in hopes that we can earn the right to say all Memphians feel at home at the Fourth Bluff and that we’re all better for it.

Maria Fuhrmann is the convener of Memphis’ Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, The Fourth Bluff.

Ready to write the next chapter

02.09.17
Akron civic commons
photo credit: Katelyn Freil

By Daniel M. Rice

In a Midwestern, midsized city, one tends to get stuck in the middle, the space between. Not urban, but certainly not rural. Not a big city, but definitely not a small town. Not cutting edge, but not backwards. So often defined by what we are not, we tend to forget to remember what we are.

The Ohio & Erie Canal runs through Akron. It was a transportation innovation that built the city as a place for commerce and industrial innovation as we became the center for the cereal, mower and reaper industries and ultimately, the rubber industry. An urban plan that transformed the city from 1827 to 1913 making us the place to pass through on your way to somewhere else. A place to pass through.

The flood of 1913, in combination with rail and automotive advances, supplanted the canal as our means to greatness. We caught the next wave. We put rubber in our veins. Between 1910 and 1920, Akron was the fastest growing city in the country. Our population tripled with a wave of Appalachian immigrants and African-Americans migrating from the South who clamored for work in the rubber industry. By World War II, more than 70,000 people were employed in the Akron area rubber companies, making us the Rubber Capital of the World. We championed the tire and its automotive culture, building 50 percent more highway per square mile in our county than the Ohio average. While Akron certainly benefited from the industrial growth of the rubber and tire industry, there was a tremendous cost to the environment, as our land and waterways, including the Ohio & Erie Canal and Summit Lake were abused by pollution. We were excellent at making things to get you on your way.

By 1970, the effects of redlining and suburban sprawl shifted people and economic drivers away from the city, begging us to reinvent ourselves. We used our rubber industry dominance to create 21st century opportunities in biomedical, plastics and metal research, and advanced manufacturing.

But that is history. It’s time for a new story.

odnr-officer-at-summit-lake-community-day-4-16_creditbruceford

photo credit: Bruce Ford

Just as geography and the Ohio & Erie Canal defined our community, it is shaping our future as the public spaces and neighborhoods along this historic waterway and multi-use recreational trail, are being revitalized as excellent places to spend time, rather than pass through. By focusing on a three-mile stretch of the Ohio & Erie Canal and Towpath Trail, from our downtown center city to Summit Lake Park, we are seeking to build relationships with all members of our community, because the people of Akron are our greatest source of strength. This three-mile corridor connects our highest salaried and least diverse downtown community with our highest impoverished and most diverse community at Summit Lake. We are seeking to build a city for all people, regardless of their race, income, gender or age, through the development of great public spaces where all citizens can gather, exchange ideas, play and build relationships with one another.

photo credit: Katelyn Freil

photo credit: Katelyn Freil

The work of the Akron Civic Commons is to reestablish our way of doing business, our way of city building, our way of valuing people. We aim to instill collaborative, cross sector inclusion as a best practice for problem solving and planning. Through a ‘test and learn’ approach we aim to demonstrate the value of creating delight, and the priceless joy of sharing valuable space. Our projects will demonstrate that by adhering to the values of Reimagining the Civic Commons—environmental sustainability, economic integration, civic engagement and value creation—we can create great value for Akron. Through this innovative process, we seek to elevate the conversation, creativity, and engagement of the city and demonstrate to all that Akron is much more than a space in between.

Daniel M. Rice is 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.

The original heart of Memphis

02.17.17

By Maria Fuhrmann

Memphis began at the river, with the flow of goods, trade, and commodities. If it came up the river and into the city, it first went through the area now known as the Fourth Bluff. Nearly two hundred years later we’re bringing a new lens to the role that this part of town can play in the life of Memphis by locating our Reimagining the Civic Commons work here.

memphis-original-commerce

We see many opportunities in drawing Memphians back to this original starting point and revitalizing the Fourth Bluff. It will become a hub for a new civic life based on the intangible commodities of ideas, knowledge and experiences that, when successful, capture the imagination of Memphians and inspire them to take these things back to neighborhoods and communities across the city.

Cossitt Library is the spiritual cornerstone of this initiative. In simple terms, libraries help us learn and empower ourselves by sharing books. What else might we share at the Fourth Bluff to help us learn about each other and what we can do together?

In the past libraries and parks have sometimes been treated like different bands—pick your favorite and cheer them on. At the Fourth Bluff we see the library and parks as part of an ensemble where each of these places and the organizations behind them are playing their unique part of the same tune. If we do it right, this is a tune that will draw Memphians back to the river where our city originated, and give them reason to meet one another in entirely new ways.

pic-1-108

Drawn together in the reimagined Mississippi River Park or Memphis Park, we’ll share new memories of life along the riverfront that open our eyes to the possibilities for similar adventures and learning opportunities throughout Memphis.

The same will happen at Cossitt Library, where we’ll be working to build a place of open and productive civic discourse and discovery. It will grow as a safe place for community conversations where the community can learn about and discuss civic projects—where everyone can be confident that their voice will be heard. Cossitt Library will be a space where wide ranging ideas are discussed freely and openly. This would be a new way for Memphians to bring their ideas to life, and trade and build on them and improve the quality of our civic life.

cossitt-lights-1

But it’s not just about civic purpose and weighty questions about the future of our city. First and foremost we want people to feel that the Fourth Bluff is a fun, pleasant place to learn, grow, and experience life in Memphis. We will be working hard over the next three years in hopes that we can earn the right to say all Memphians feel at home at the Fourth Bluff and that we’re all better for it.

Maria Fuhrmann is the convener of Memphis’ Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, The Fourth Bluff.

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