Reimagining the Civic Commons

The First Moves Towards the Commons


Last week, teams from the five Reimagining the Civic Commons cities convened in Chicago for Civic Commons Studio #2, which focused on “The First Moves.”

This time, Chicago played host to an energetic gathering of dozens of demonstration team members, funders, policy experts, design and engagement professionals, storytellers and a few provocateurs. This studio included on-site tours of key elements of Chicago’s civic commons project, including St. Laurence, Kenwood Gardens, Stony Island Arts Bank and a workforce development component of the work, Dorchester Industries. In addition, participants learned from existing civic asset and redevelopment work such as The 606, Eleanor Boathouse and the Arts Block. Multi-city panels discussed sustainability and socioeconomic mixing in civic commons projects; and breakout sessions covered wide-ranging subjects including value creation, moving people to civic action, programming and measurement.

Civic Commons Studio #2

Five months ago, at the first Civic Commons Studio in Philadelphia, demonstration teams were just getting to know each other and were still in the early phases of identifying goals, timelines and project plans. In Chicago, the teams had gelled, and were ready to share stories of early challenges and possible solutions. A few themes emerged:

The Currency Exchange Cafe, Chicago

Meet people where they are. Authentic civic engagement is more than public meetings. Much of the discussions around engagement focused on meeting people where they are, physically and socially, and connecting with them informally at the places where they go about their lives. Sometimes engaging people in fun is the best way to start them on the path to stewardship. Alexa Bush from the City of Detroit reminded the teams that co-creation of temporary interventions such as bike lanes, painted crosswalks or programming offers a chance for neighbors to become tangibly involved immediately in the work of the civic commons, while creating a platform for engagement as others notice and ask questions. While activation may be centered on fun, remember that people will come for a cause but stay for the relationships.

Eleanor Gorski, Theaster Gates and Deputy Mayor Steve Koch

Connect and communicate. Communicating the purpose and meaning of the civic commons work, whether to citizens, neighborhood groups or local leaders can be challenging. Information designed for one group of people doesn’t always work with another: give one group too much detail and lose them; forget to provide the right details and your audience doesn’t understand. Discussions focused on storytelling and branding converged upon the need to communicate visually and verbally with emotion and by referencing your community’s shared values, and on being sure that people in a given community see themselves in your projects as you communicate about the work.

Jacqueline Stewart from the University of Chicago talks about the South Side Movie Project

Working across institutions is the new normal. For these varied and complex civic commons projects to succeed, teams must work across institutional power structures. Successful projects will gain the trust of elected leadership, bureaucratic staff, activists, advocates and neighbors without the backing of one single formal organization—and this relies on trust and good relationships. As the private, non-profit and public sectors work more closely and in ongoing ways on the civic commons, said the Kresge Foundation’s Rip Rapson, the “we are transitioning from the slow and bureaucratic to the innovative” in our work. Kathryn Ott-Lovell remarked that risk aversion in the public sector is often more pronounced among lower-level staff than among the higher-ups; creating personal relationships with middle and lower level staff can often spur trust more and engagement in the work more quickly.

Rip Rapson interviewed by Carol Coletta

An inclusive and sustainable commons is within reach. Two experts and provocateurs helped city teams think differently about the issues of sustainability and inclusivity in the commons. Nicholas de Monchaux from the University of California at Berkeley reminded city teams that cities are places of “organized complexity,” and that understanding the web of interactions between physical infrastructure, social relationships and ecological impacts was key when designing for true sustainability.

Nicholas de Monchaux

Ryan Enos from Harvard University talked about the deep human effects of sharing spaces with people unlike ourselves—how an inclusive commons that draws people from diverse backgrounds can measurably improve cooperation and sharing between and among people.

Ryan Enos

Sometimes you just need to move forward. Civic Commons Studio #2 ended with a panel discussion of what Theaster Gates called the ‘indeterminate’—moving forward with a plan that is flexible enough to allow you to progress, but leave space open for good things to happen. Moving forward with your project even when the end is not completely in sight feels risky, yet creates the space for new opportunities to arise that may better meet the needs of people and neighborhoods. Kathryn Ott Lovell, Commissioner of Parks for the City of Philadelphia reminded city teams to think flexibly about how to design spaces and programming not just for today, but for the future—to think deeply about how your space will be used 15 to 25 years from now.

Theaster Gates on “the indeterminate”

Shared insights, lessons and the big questions that surround this work are what the studios are all about. Gathering practitioners working on the ground with content area experts provides a forum for exchange and real time technical assistance, a true learning network. The studios will form the basis for future how-to resources for civic asset and city leaders who are eager to pursue reimagining their own civic commons.

Moving People to Civic Action breakout session


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