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Feature Story

June 2020


More Cities Join Effort to Reimagine Public Spaces

Five more U.S. cities recently joined Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative to advance ambitious social, economic and environmental goals through public spaces. Joining the original cohort of cities, Lexington, Macon, Miami, Minneapolis and San Jose have committed to strategic investments in parks, libraries, trails and community centers.

Comprised of innovative civic leaders forging new ways to design, manage and operate public spaces for the benefit of all, Reimagining the Civic Commons aims to transform civic assets to connect people of all backgrounds, cultivate trust and create more resilient communities. The original five demonstration cities involved in the initiative are Akron, Ohio, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is supported by The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and William Penn Foundation, The initiative is designed to demonstrate how strategic investments in civic assets can advance engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in cities and neighborhoods.

:Leaders at the supporting foundations acknowledged that a robust civic commons is key to the nation's recovery from COVID-19, allowing cities to rebuild social capital and create more equitable and resilient communities.

"Amidst the safer-at-home measures during this pandemic, we have seen public spaces—our parks, open spaces and trails—sustaining people in ways we only contemplated a few months ago," said Dana Bourland, vice president of environment at The JPB Foundation. "A growing number of people have no deeply experienced that our civic commons delivers multiple benefits—reduced stress, improved health, a necessary sense of human connection. High-quality, well-maintained public spaces are critical infrastructure, and they must be available to everyone within walking distance from their home. And they should be at the top of the to-do list for policymakers, leaders and cities."

In addition to the expansion into new cities, more than $10 million in new investment will continue to support leading-edge public space efforts in the five original demonstration cities. To illustrate some of the strides made since these five cities began four years ago:

  • In Akron, formerly neglected Summit Lake in one of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods has become a gathering place where residents can experience nature every day. Some 94% of visitors to the lake believe the previously isolated neighborhood now has a bright future.
  • In Chicago, investments in unique civic spaces like the Stony Island Arts Bank Campus and the formerly vacant St. Laurence School are sparking South Side neighborhood revitalization. More than 650 free programs held in civic commons sites drew more than 26,000 people to neighborhood spaces in the past three years.
  • Detroit has transformed vacant lots into a new park and greenway, and an empty storefront into the Neighborhood HomeBase, a welcoming community hub. The result is increased public life throughout the neighborhood and 10 new storefronts for local businesses on the commercial corridor.
  • Memphis has reimagined a set of all-but-abandoned spaces along the Mississippi River to become an active, revitalized waterfront. Formerly home to Confederate monuments, the renamed and revitalized Fourth Bluff Park and River Garden now welcome a diversity of Memphis citizens every day, and River Garden has nearly doubled visitor numbers.
  • Philadelphia has a new riverfront bike and pedestrian trail, a renovated public library and park space, an elevated park, a nature and youth education center and a neighborhood-oriented gathering space in West Fairmount Park. The project created a robust, collaborative network of public space practitioners and helped set the stage for $500 million in new civic asset funding through the Rebuild initiative.

"Months of quarantine has brought home to all of us just how much we need great public spaces," said Sam Gill, Knight's senior vice president and chief program officer. "These spaces will be key to supporting socially connected, healthy communities as we emerge from this pandemic."

The expansion into five new cities presents opportunities to:

  1. Enhance civic engagement and civic trust through public spaces that are programmed to support authentic neighborhood and community participation.
  2. Engender support for—and investment in—public spaces within communities as an approach to a more engaged and vibrant community.
  3. Grow the capabilities of leaders in communities, both in civil society and in public administration, to conceive of, build and program public spaces that deliver outcomes in communities.

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