Sep. 12, 2016 12:48 pm

Philly is sharing its best practices for creating equitable public space with 4 other cities

The "Reimagining the Civic Commons" initiative is expanding. Leaders from Akron, Memphis, Chicago and Detroit visited last week to learn what we're doing right.

John Bartram's house, near the future Civic Commons site Bartram's Mile.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Mt. Airy USA. It has been corrected. Edit 9/13 @ 4:35 p.m.
Fairmount Park Conservancy’s new executive director, Rick Magder, is a native of Detroit. That’s why he’s especially excited about seeing how the city’s forthcoming public space project pans out — a project that, in a way, connects his old home with his new one.

“Detroit has huge challenges,” he said. “What’s nice about what they’re trying to do is they’re not trying to get overly ambitious [by only focusing on one corridor]. The neighborhood has as much need as North Philadelphia has. … It will be phenomenal if they can pull it off.”

The “Reimagining the Civic Commons” initiative, piloted in Philadelphia, is expanding, and Philly is acting as a mentor to the four other cities taking it on, including Magder’s hometown.

Last week, mayors and major foundation heads from Detroit, Akron, Chicago and Memphis hung out at City Hall with our own Mayor Kenney, major funders and organizational convener Fairmount Park Conservancy (FPC), to hear best practices in developing equitable civic spaces. Philadelphia is at the midway point of the three-year initiative focused on the development of five civic assets, including Bartram’s Mile Trail and the Reading Viaduct.

“One of the really great things about today is you have the leadership from each city. You have the mayor speaking to other mayors, the local foundation leaders speaking to other foundation leaders,” Magder said on Friday. “To see that [focus] on equity and public space — I’ve never seen that before.”

Here are each city’s projects:

  • Memphis — “The Fourth Bluff project — four blocks of downtown Memphis deeded by the city’s founders for public use — links prominent public assets concentrated together along the Mississippi River to bridge urban connectivity gaps that are both cultural and physical.”
  • Detroit — “This project [21st Century Civic Commons] supports the development of a civic commons in a neighborhood lacking traditional civic assets, removing the barriers that separate two anchor institutions from the community that surrounds them through the creation of a new public realm.”
  • Chicago — “Chicago Arts + Industry Commons connects sleepy civic spaces to recalibrate community activation, targeting resources as networks of neighborhood development, rather than as isolated assets.”
  • Akron — In Akron Civic Commons, “Three civic asset areas, Civic Gateway, Park East and Summit Lake, along with the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail are reimagined and connected to bring economically diverse neighborhoods together, build civic pride and advance environmental sustainability.”

Half of the cost of the forthcoming Civic Commons projects — $20 million — will be funded by four national foundations: The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation. Another $20 million will be funded by local organizations.

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In Philadelphia, Knight and William Penn foundations each contributed about $5.5 million to total $11 million, an amount matched by the city. Each of the five local projects also secured some funding from other, relevant groups.

These monetary investments come with investments in nonprofit and public sector leaders, too: Partners involved in the planning of these capital projects are a part of the Civic Commons Learning Network, which offers them leadership and capacity development training, trips to other cities doing similar work and learning exchanges with other leaders, said Jennifer Mahar, FPC’s senior director of civic initiatives.

FPC has been sending its own staff as well as local Civic Commons leaders — reps from Bartram’s Garden and Mt. Airy USA, for instance — to other Civic Commons cities to serve as “experts” and share the skills they’ve learned from their own projects.

It’s also been hosting tours from groups across the country (and one from New Zealand) interested in how it’s been doing the on-the-ground work.

The conservancy will host another, larger conference in December to officially launch the Civic Commons Learning Network, and the Civic Commons cities will meet formally twice per year. But “this has been happening on a personal level for a while,” Mahar said — the initiative is “structured to be collaborative.”


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