Reimagining the Civic Commons

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

Reimagining the Civic Commons

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

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

A Geography of Opportunity

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

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

the texture of left behind

05.08.17
photo credit: Yaw Agyeman

By Yaw Agyeman

the texture of left behind

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

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

Business Leaders: Invest in Detroit’s Public Places

05.21.17

Entrepreneurs think high quality public places like parks, libraries, trails and the riverfront are some of the most important investments Detroit can make.

So say the national and local leaders queried in The Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Reinvestment Index, a survey that examined the perceptions of businesspeople about Detroit. The Kresge Foundation found that eight in 10 business leaders in Detroit and around the country believe that the city can continue its comeback and rise to become a great American city once more.

The report demonstrated that business leaders understand the value of investment in the civic commons:

  • 19% of entrepreneurs in the city said high-quality public places were the most important attributes to running a small business—the top choice over options like low taxes and a motivated workforce.
  • 77% of national business leaders and 78% of Detroit entrepreneurs said high-quality public places are necessary for business success.
  • 46% of Detroit’s entrepreneurs said improving the pace of revitalizing and rehabilitating neighborhoods and communities is one of the top two things small business owners primarily need to succeed in Detroit. This was tied with skilled workers for the top spot.

In Detroit, Reimagining the Civic Commons investments include a new city park, a non-motorized greenway, and “neighborhood hubs,” which could become community gardens, volleyball courts or other community-chosen spaces. It will also transform vacant lots into new land-based agribusinesses that could grow food or other crops.

People working on these projects understand that public assets like parks and recreation centers enable neighborhoods to prosper, improve sustainability, and foster relationships among people of diverse backgrounds. And it turns out that business leaders understand the impact of quality public places on a city’s economic success as well.

 

Philadelphia: Community Engagement 2.0

05.19.17

Reimagining the Civic Commons began in Philadelphia in 2015, as an investment by Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation in five civic assets and an effort to foster civic engagement, connection between people of different backgrounds and better communities. This work spurred an even bigger investment in neighborhood parks, libraries, recreation centers, playgrounds and other public spaces called Rebuild, which raises $500 million for more than 400 sites throughout the city.

With Rebuild, Philadelphia is doing more than creating great places for people to gather and connect—they’re also reinventing how cities build and maintain meaningful relationships with communities and residents. Working side-by-side with local residents on planning and implementation means increasing numbers of people who act as stewards for the improvements in their own neighborhood. The results of this innovative approach: enduring stewardship, meaningful civic engagement among neighbors and a stronger local democracy.

Mike DiBerardinis, managing director of Rebuild, put it this way in a recent interview with PlanPhilly:

“We’ll try to engage citizens at that level of a real relationship—it is emotional, it has passion, it has trust, it has expectations. In fostering these relationships, many of them brand-new ones, the administration’s hope is that they’ll inspire residents to think more imaginatively about their public facilities, building trust, and helping forge relationships with the city to realize those aspirations.”

In forming these deep and meaningful relationships with residents as places are transformed, you can begin to see how the outcomes of Reimagining the Civic Commons are more than just placemaking.

The ongoing engagement between community organizations and the city has created cross-organizational teams that continue to evolve as the project continues. According to Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, this new model of partnerships has changed the way teams on the ground work on creating better public places that foster neighborhood outcomes:

“The Civic Commons Initiative has helped our thinking around Rebuild, in terms of how we will work with partners, and the whole concept around investing in existing infrastructure.”

As Rebuild moves forward, we’re excited to see the threads of community grow stronger—and to take lessons from Philadelphia on growing investments in the civic commons to nurture local democracy and improve lives.

Saturday in the Park: Experiencing RiverPlay’s First Weekend

           
06.15.17

by Melody Gordon

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

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

image credit: Edward Valibus

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

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

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

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

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

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

image credit: Edward Valibus

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

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

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

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

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

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

image credit: Edward Valibus

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

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

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

Civic Commons Studio #2: Inspiration from Chicago

                       
06.27.17
photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

By Bronlynn Thurman

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

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

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

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

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

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

Measuring Success

Civic engagement

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

Economic integration

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

Environmental sustainability

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

Value creation

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

Civic Commons Studio #2: Inspiration from Chicago

06.27.17
photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

By Bronlynn Thurman

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

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

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

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

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

photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman

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

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

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