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Kathryn Ott Lovell: ‘There is huge potential in Philadelphia’s public spaces’

June 25, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPeople
Like Anuj Gupta, who we profiled June 21, Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell was recently named a Public Spaces Fellow by the Knight Foundation.

“Lovell oversees one of the largest park systems in the country, bringing a strong focus on innovation to the government sector,” said the statement that accompanied the announcement of the fellows at the inaugural Knight Public Spaces Forum June 19 in Philadelphia.

Ott Lovell , the statement continued, played an integral role in the creation of Parks on Tap, a mobile pop-up beer garden; Swim Philly, a program designed to increase amenities and programming at neighborhood pools; The Oval+, an interactive mural installation, park, and event series; and the Philadelphia International Unity Cup, a soccer tournament that celebrates the rich cultural diversity of Philadelphia.

The fellows, who are awarded $150,000 in flexible funding, include Robert Hammond, Walter Hood, Eric Klinenberg, Chelina Odbert and Erin Salazar, in addition to Lovell and Gupta. They were identified through a national call for nominations that launched in February (which could include self-nominations), and were selected by Knight staff, in consultation with experts and leaders in the field, from a field of more than 2,000 nominees.

Generocity caught up with Ott Lovell June 24 for a brief Q&A.

Generocity: In what way will you use the $150,000 you are to receive from Knight?

Ott Lovell: We are still in the planning stages, but fundamentally this grant is a way to bring innovation, risk taking, and new ideas to serving residents in our public spaces. There is huge potential in Philadelphia’s public spaces — but testing and trying new ideas is not always easy, especially in a big system/bureaucracy.

From our Partners

This grant is a chance to bring staff and residents together to test drive their creative ideas for our parks and rec centers. For instance, why can’t we find space in a rec center for an incubator for a local entrepreneur? Perhaps we partner with local artists to imagine shared work/performance spaces at our parks or rec centers. We have great ideas, we have space. Maybe there’s a way to think about the traditional recreation center or park in new ways using these places as a community hub.

Generocity: Do you have a “public spaces” philosophy? When you think of your past/present/future projects, what is your primary concern and/or area of exploration?

Ott Lovell: Philadelphia has made incredible transformations in our public spaces in Center City and along the waterfront. The investments and innovations in places like LOVE Park and Spruce Street Harbor Park are a huge part of what’s driving our city’s renaissance right now.

But we need to see that same level of innovation and investment in our neighborhood public spaces. Until now, there simply have not been resources available to make those critical improvements, and to really re-think whether neighborhood parks and rec centers are designed to serve their communities today in the same way they did when they were built in the 1950s.

Today public spaces must exist on multiple dimensions and compete with previously unimagined disruptive forces. To stay relevant, they need to do more than be places to relax and play. To stay relevant, the people and communities who use these spaces need to have a stake in shaping how they are built and activated.

Through our William Penn and Knight foundations supported Civic Commons initiative, we have seen firsthand the power that great public spaces have to uplift a city and its neighborhoods. Mayor Kenney’s Rebuild initiative is Civic Commons at-large and is further evidence of a shifting mentality in Philadelphia that parks, recreation centers, and libraries are far more valuable than their parochial 20th century purposes.

The resources from this fellowship could provide resident-led models for Rebuild to build and sustain local ownership and relevancy while investing back into the space and the surrounding community.

Generocity: How do you define community and how does that inform your work?

Ott Lovell: Community is core to our work because we support the places and spaces where people come together. It’s that shared experience and common ownership of place that helps to bind us to each other as a community. This is our true civic commons. Finding our collective greatness in all the things we share. For all of us … our kids, long-time Philadelphians, new Philadelphians, families. Our playgrounds, parks, and rec centers can celebrate our shared history and plant the seeds for a better future.

Our agenda focuses on how individual experiences and interactions with our spaces and programs can change one’s life trajectory and advance our city as a whole; and how must we realign our resources, our decision-making, and staffing to advance these new ideals and deeply connect to communities. That is what keeps me excited and inspires me — finding places for people to create experiences and make real connections with each other and their city.

Generocity: Philadelphia is known as a city of neighborhoods, but in some of those neighborhoods, lack of investment in, and neglect of, public spaces can reinforce the residents’ feeling of social exclusion. What does it take to turn those into places of inclusion? 

Ott Lovell: The Rebuild initiative is all about fostering equity and new energy to neighborhood community spaces. I am excited to be part of the team delivering Rebuild, especially because its approach to planning and design is rooted in the neighborhood, and the community members who use these public spaces day in and day out. Leveraging this historic investment to create sustainable platforms for engagement will make Philadelphia a city where any resident can count on having public spaces that they are proud of and have a role in shaping.

This fellowship will help boost our renewed commitment to building a resident-centric city agency and a more deeply engaged citizenry — at a hyperlocal level. With seed funding, we will explore innovative ways to bring people into our spaces and make them more relevant to new and existing users through social enterprises. We have seen that you can grow public spaces by investing in the people around the space. This opportunity will allow us to bring staff and residents together to test their creative ideas while investing back into the space and the surrounding community.

Generocity: Did you nominate yourself or were you nominated by someone? Were you surprised?

I am still completely blown away. I did not nominate myself, and heard from a few folks that they might be putting me forward.

Looking at the other fellows, I am so excited to be a part of a national network of proven thought leaders and change agents. This is definitely a huge honor — not just for me, but for our city and Parks & Recreation.

Philadelphia’s approach to public space innovation is getting a lot of attention and we are at a critical moment to continue this momentum to make transformational investments in every neighborhood of this city.


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