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.