Reimagining the Civic Commons

Creating authentic connections through place

Discovery Center pop-up event in Philadelphia; photo credit: Penn Praxis

This was originally posted on Knight Foundation’s blog.

Saturday, Knight Foundation announced $3.28 million in new support to Fairmount Park Conservancy to support a citywide civic engagement strategy that will allow residents to shape activities in Philadelphia’s public spaces. 

By Patrick Morgan

It’s an essential time for communities to invest in places and spaces that bring us together. A neighborhood public library, park or recreation center are often the places where strangers come together, where we learn about each other, and where neighbors and local decision-makers meet to create a better community. Recent research by the Center for Active Design validates that public spaces can help to facilitate community connection, trust and involvement.

Love Your Park at Norris Square; photo credit: Albert Yee

We have seen this first hand in Philadelphia as the pilot city for Reimagining the Civic Commons. Launched in 2015 with support from Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation, the initiative focuses on connecting five neighborhood spaces as a way to foster connections between residents and create greater civic engagement.

Two years later, Reimagining the Civic Commons has supported local leaders around the five model projects to take risks, scale new ideas and share learning through a growing network of nonprofit, public and community partners. This effort helped serve as inspiration for the City of Philadelphia’s Rebuild initiative, which plans to invest $500 million in capital improvement of parks, recreation centers and libraries. In addition, in 2016 a group of foundations – including The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation – expanded Reimagining the Civic Commons to four other cities, including two Knight cities, Detroit and Akron, along with Chicago and Memphis.

A Neighborhood Exchange Box event in Mt. Airy; photo credit: Steve Weinik

Building on this momentum, Knight recently announced that we will double down on our public space investment in Philadelphia with the goal of fostering more engaged and connected communities. A $3.28 million investment will support the Fairmount Park Conservancy and partners in developing a citywide civic engagement strategy to connect people to place and each other, inviting all Philadelphians to participate in shaping their neighborhoods.

Viola Alley Connector project, Philadelphia; photo credit: Jennifer Mahar

With this new support, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and its partners will advance training and activities to jumpstart citywide participation and energy around public spaces. Lessons learned from Reimagining the Civic Commons will help the conservancy and partners develop fun, fast pop-up projects to experiment, gather insights and get residents of all kinds involved. Capacity workshops will help identify new community leaders and enlist them as allies in building engagement. Insights and best practices will be shared across the Reimagining the Civic Commons national network. In this way, we hope to amplify and strengthen the work happening locally.

The Fairmount Park Conservancy’s GLOW in the Park; photo credit: Albert Yee

In addition to strengthening civic engagement, our Philadelphia strategy will explore new ways to repurpose public spaces as community resources for learning skills and collaboration. It will also support ideas and new experiments that examine how public spaces can help bring people together and create pathways to opportunity, particularly through approaches that leverage technology and the arts.

Pokemon Go players at a recent Philly Free Streets event; photo credit: Patrick Morgan

The momentum and energy we are seeing around transforming Philadelphia’s public spaces has the potential to create a stronger future for the city. To get there, we need to ensure that investments are made in the people and communities who use these spaces, so they have a stake in shaping how their community spaces are built and activated. Through this process, we hope people feel an authentic connection to place, to each other, and to their city.

Patrick Morgan is Philadelphia program director at Knight Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @PMorganPHL.


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