Jun. 10, 2016 11:15 am

Majora Carter came to town to lend some advice to Philly’s civic spaces

Community isn't just a place, Carter said at an Arts + Business Council and Chamber event. It's an activity, and people need a place to do it.

Carmen Ferrigno (left), Majora Carter, Matthew Grande, Anuj Gupta and Jennifer Mahar discuss civic spaces and community inclusion.

(Photo by Tony Abraham)

Before urban revitalization veteran and entrepreneur Majora Carter became a renowned advocate for public space and community-driven real estate development, she spent eight years creating a public park from a riverside dump site in her native South Bronx.

“My approach to development was, if our city and state is only thinking of us as a place where you dump garbage … not produced by us, what we have to do is create the physical places that remind people both inside and outside our community that this is not what we are,” said Carter at an event hosted by Arts + Business Council and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

But cleaning up a dump site wasn’t enough. In order to get folks to actually use the space — now Hunt’s Point Riverside Park — Carter’s nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx had to create programming within it. That programming made the park feel like “an everyday part of the community,” Carter said.

“Having something this beautiful reflects back on the people in the community itself,” she said. “Beauty is as beauty does.”

This was repeated time and time again by speakers at the event: Not only does your environment dictates the way you act and the way you interact with others, but your ZIP code has more influence on your wellbeing than your genetic code.

In 2014, the William Penn and Knight Foundations put up $11 million to reignite five of Philadelphia’s civic spaces in partnership with the Fairmount Park Conservancy. Reimagining the Civic Commons has since been supplemented by a major effort from Mayor Jim Kenney, whose administration is seeking $300 million to revamp the city’s public spaces.

“We need more opportunities for people to be together and in community with each other,” Carter said. “Community is not just a place, it’s an activity. You need places to do it. It’s a design challenge.”

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Ultimately, Carter said, public spaces are community assets that need to “allow folks to be their best selves.” Carter joined a panel of local leaders to offer up some advice to three local projects with ideas to transform the city’s civic spaces and communities. Along with Carter, those panelists included:

  • Carmen Ferrigno, VP of communications at Saint-Gobain Corporation
  • Matthew Grande, COO at Shift Capital, LCC
  • Anuj Gupta, GM of Reading Terminal Market
  • Jennifer Mahar, senior director of civic initiatives at Fairmount Park Conservancy

Solar panels in Centennial Park

Anthony Giancatarino, director of policy and strategy at the Center for Social Inclusion, also an advisor to the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, presented a proposal to implement solar panels in the park for local residents’ use.

“Energy is tied to everything,” from heating and cooling homes to preparing a meal, Giancatarino said. Solar panels would offer a sustainable source of energy for the community surrounding Centennial. “We [often] think of our communities as deficits. We’re trying to think about this in terms of assets.”

The challenge, Ferrigno said, will be finding funders interested in making a long-term investment for the good of the community. Still, Carter reminded Giancatarino how important it is to “lead with the money.”

“It’s good you’re a white guy,” she said. “As a black female tech founder, if I go out and make a pitch and have my white male president … do the pitch, he’ll come back with the sale. I’ll come back with, ‘It’s so nice you’re working with young people.'”

Touting the project’s social impact is great, Carter said, but Giancatarino shouldn’t bury the idea that solar panel investment might yield longer-term financial returns for investors.

Tech in the community

Bon Ku, an emergency room specialist at Thomas Jefferson University, presented a community project done in partnership with Comcast Collaboration Studios. The project produced GPS-powered devices that allowed Kensington youth to easily locate healthy food options, as well as homemade FitBits that tracked the youths’ movement and fitness data.

“We cannot do health in a silo,” Ku said. “We need community partners to improve the health of Philadelphia.”

There are assumptions that low-income communities will only patronize low-quality businesses, Gupta said. But the reality is quite the opposite. People appreciate quality across the board. The issue is creating access to quality in businesses led by communities themselves.

“You can have at least a marginal if not more of an impact on public health outcomes by giving [communities] access to [healthy food options],” Gupta said.

Mahar pushed for the Civic Commons initiative to begin looking at health outcomes as the project progresses.

Connecting a historic garden to the city

Maitreyi Roy, executive director of the John Bartram Assocation — the organization that manages the historic Bartram’s Garden — presented her nonprofit’s plan to connect the garden to Center City via Bartram’s Mile.

“With that effort will come hundreds of new visitors to the garden,” Roy said. The organization wants to make sure the local community around the garden remains connected and isn’t driven out by the influx of tourists.

Roy is already making sure the community is included in the process, Carter said, simply by attending community meetings and representing her organization and its intentions.

“That engagement you’ve taken is literally the first step. Going to that community meeting, seeing people,” she said. “You create spaces — not just physical, but the psychological space. I think you’re on the right track, which is really just seriously engaging people.”

You won’t know how to include community in civic projects until you talk to the community, Carter said, and that physical interaction is invaluable.


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