Reimagining the Civic Commons

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Philadelphia

A three-year investment by Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation is a pilot effort to draw Philadelphia’s leading nonprofit public space operators into a collaborative network, led by Fairmount Park Conservancy, to reimagine the civic commons.

In 2014, Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation invested $11 million to create a “civic commons collective” of five model projects in Philadelphia. As the first Reimagining the Civic Commons location, Philadelphia serves as a living laboratory, with participating leaders and organizations spending three years exploring new ideas and piloting new strategies to inspire cities across the country.

The five newly reimagined civic assets are concentrated in neighborhoods surrounding Center City and include a riverfront bike and pedestrian trail, a renovated public library and park space, an elevated park, a nature center/outdoor youth education center, and new active and passive recreation improvements for West Fairmount Park.

  Bartram’s Mile
  Centennial Commons
  The Discovery Center
  Lovett Library and Park
  The Viaduct Rail Park

The public, non-profit and private sector organizations working together in Philadelphia as the Civic Commons Collective are fostering a collaborative environment among the city’s community network, while repurposing and repositioning pieces of the city’s existing urban infrastructure as new civic amenities.

Civic leaders in Philadelphia are building on initial success with significant new funding in the form of a sweetened beverage tax, which will leverage $48 million in resources for a $300 million bond to fund significant capital investments in parks, recreation centers, libraries and other community infrastructure.

“From river to river and out through Philly’s many diverse neighborhoods, our citizens, businesses, and local funders are working to make recreation and nature accessible for all.”

Mayor Jim Kenney, City of Philadelphia, whose first major piece of legislation upon taking office was the passage of a sweetened beverage tax to support the Rebuild initiative, a $300 million investment in the city’s parks, recreations centers and libraries.

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.

Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers in the Commons

04.07.17
Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers at Reading Terminal Market; photo credit: Alex Styer

By Anuj Gupta

When originally conceived, Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers felt timely. The backdrop included a splintering nation, an increasingly diverse and growing city (Philadelphia), a diverse public space that sought to embrace Philadelphia’s expanding diaspora, and enormous social challenges requiring collective action at every level. The project is now vital. We are in desperate need of shared experiences that point to our commonalities; that is the only way we can talk with one another and find communal solutions. This project leverages one of the few common denominators we share – food – to bring people together and connect through cultural exchange.

photo credit: Alex Styer

What role does a public market have in community building and helping people cross societal chasms?

I would argue, a very significant one. As one of the city’s most diverse public spaces, the Reading Terminal Market is uniquely positioned to host this project as it is one of Philadelphia’s most diverse public spaces. The market’s non-profit mission includes “maintain(ing) an environment that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of our citizens and fosters their interaction.” As the city’s most visited site (6.5 million+ in 2016), the market now draws all walks of life. Every race, religion, ethnicity, income level, etc., finds a home at Reading Terminal. Dr. Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist wrote about this dynamic in The Cosmopolitan Canopy in which he observed the Market to be a place “where anyone could expect civility.” He determined that the market’s product – namely food – had the power to break through many of the social barriers we erect among ourselves. Anderson wrote, “When diverse people are eating one another’s food, a social good is performed for those observing. As people become intimate through such shared experiences, some barriers can be broken.”

photo credit: Alex Styer

Programming to bridge divides using food as a common denominator.

We decided to see if this dynamic could be used to bring our increasingly diverse city closer together, help people bridge their divides and form and then strengthen relationships with this remarkable public space. The project structure includes inviting two to three communities to engage in an interactive cooking demonstration at the market, in which they learn to cook one another’s food. The cooking demos are led by chefs who are able to explain the dish’s technical requirements and, more importantly, how the foods reflect their respective cultures. The participants (30-40 a session) then sit down for dinner with the food they just prepared, to truly break bread with one another. The dinner includes a trained facilitator from the City of Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission and the University of Pennsylvania’s Project for Civic Engagement at each table to help the strangers meet, converse and build a deeper appreciation for one another. Each pairing is then asked to return for a subsequent session before which they must collaboratively decide what dishes they wish to cook together and why.

To date, we have completed three pairings. We have reached out to new and old Philadelphians alike. Our first two sessions paired longstanding neighbors that have historically had tense relationships – Korean Americans and African-Americans around a West Philadelphia commercial corridor and West African refugees and African-American residents around a Southwest Philadelphia playground. Our third pairing brought together the city’s newest residents, Syrian refugees, with longstanding Philadelphia residents in Northeast Philadelphia – two communities that simply did not know one another.

photo credit: Alex Styer

Early results are promising.

While the project still has many sessions to go before completion, and it is too early to fully assess the work, I believe the dinners are already impacting communities positively. We have seen Syrian refugees invited for the first time to their neighborhood association meetings. We have hosted the West African community at Reading Terminal for an edition release of a community publication and now we are jointly planning an African continental celebration at the market. We have heard participants say that they have lived in Philadelphia for 20+ years and come to the Reading Terminal for the first time.

We have also learned how challenging community building can be. Recruitment, even when providing guests with a free meal cooked by talented chefs, can be difficult. We now know that we need to work through community organizations, on the ground, that already have credibility in the communities we are drawing from. It is not enough to simply extend an invitation from an iconic Philadelphia institution. But once there, food has a remarkable ability to spark conversation, get strangers to share details of their life and ultimately realize they have far more in common than they would have ever thought.

Anuj Gupta is General Manager of Reading Terminal Market; Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers was a 2016 Knight Cities Challenge winner.

Can parks save Philadelphia?

02.21.17
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.

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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.

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

Learning and Line Dancing in Dallas

04.21.17

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,…

Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers at Reading Terminal Market; photo credit: Alex Styer

Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers in the Commons

04.07.17

By Anuj Gupta When originally conceived, Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers felt timely. The backdrop included a splintering nation, an increasingly diverse and growing city (Philadelphia), a diverse public space that sought to embrace Philadelphia’s expanding diaspora, and enormous social challenges requiring collective action at every level. The project is now vital. We are in desperate…

Philadelphia civic commons

Can parks save Philadelphia?

02.21.17

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…

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