Reimagining the Civic Commons


Reveal, Connect, and Engage: How Design Thinking Can Help Cities

possibilities envisioned for Southwest Philadelphia’s Civic Commons

By Gia Biagi

Last year, our design firm Studio Gang – a collective of architects, planners, and thinkers – was commissioned by Reimagining the Civic Commons to create a book full of strategies and techniques aimed at making public spaces more relevant, useful, and potent. At ninety-six pages the book can feel like a lot of paper to sift through for punchlines. So here are some punchlines.

Start with what’s there

When you add it all up, the land owned and operated by local government on behalf of the public in American cities ranges from about one-third to one-half of the total area. In New York, for example, nearly 50 percent of the city is public realm.  Anyone working in transportation has seen stats like this before, given that a good chunk of the percentage consists of streets, rail, and other parts of the public way. But when you add in the rest of what we own in common, from neighborhood recreation centers to city-owned vacant lots, the map is stunning. By showing city systems pulled out of their silos and expressed as a single network, what we see is that in every neighborhood and on every block there is a place and a reason to invest. There is way to reach people where they are, through the groups of buildings and sites, with services and support, that owe it to the communities where they reside to be more relevant, inclusive, and operate together, as a commons.

map of Philadelphia’s public realm by Studio Gang

Find out what’s happening

It’s no great insight that the best way to understand a place is to talk with people who live there. Those conversations, when matched with research and observation, can lead to ideas that are ambitious and aspirational while grounded in what’s possible and what’s needed. One technique we often use to help us understand a place is the asset map. This inventory of important places and moments, collected through a range of perspectives (residents, civic leaders, planners, etc.), expands our understanding of community strengths and takes us from an abstract citywide map to a neighborhood map of daily life, local knowledge, and available resources.

In our book, a key part of asset mapping is building the community calendar, a graphic illustration of public programs happening at parks, libraries, community centers, and other civic places, on an hourly, daily, and monthly basis. With activities bundled into categories like fitness, employment, arts and culture, and more, this graphic calendar reveals opportunities to match programs with where and when people need them. For example, if the local library only offers job counseling classes during its 9-5 business hours, then working people looking for employment mobility are less likely to use the services. But if the recreation center is open in the evening and on weekends, there’s a rationale for the two institutions to collaborate and extend the services from the library to the recreation center.

community calendar by Studio Gang

Dream big, start small

The community calendar makes known what programs and services are available but it doesn’t show whether people take advantage of them. One challenge is to make the facilities themselves more welcoming and reveal what’s happening inside to encourage participation in those programs. The first step can be done with simple moves, like bringing an indoor program to the sidewalk and streets outside or offering it in whatever public facility is closest to the population that needs or wants it. If that proves successful, the next step can be investment in light infrastructure that supports the new location, like benches, a stage, lighting, and minor upgrades to interior spaces. Major capital investment can then follow with confidence given that the previous steps proved the viability of the program through sustained interest and participation from the community.

Another challenge is to connect people with their neighborhood civic assets by ensuring that their preferences are reflected in local programming. The same incremental steps can be applied. Start with simple moves to test out new programming, followed by light investment, then support ideas that work with larger investments.

The road ahead

In the important conversation about the future of our cities, Reimagining the Civic Commons offers a way forward. It starts with what’s there, builds programs and relationships through a network of resources, and takes incremental steps toward a grand vision. It’s a measured, asset-based approach that uses design-thinking to leverage the best of our public institutions. This leads to expanded economic opportunity, greater civic engagement, and cities that meet the needs and aspirations of the people who live there.

Gia Biagi is principal of urbanism and civic impact at Studio Gang.


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