A new report commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation highlights efforts in five U.S. cities to reimagine public spaces as a way to revive neglected neighborhoods.
The report, Common Goals, Different Approaches (45 pages, PDF), showcases projects in Philadelphia, Detroit, Memphis, Akron, and Chicago that were implemented as part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a three-year initiative formally launched in 2016 with $20 million from the Knight, JPB, Kresge, and Rockefeller foundations — with another $20 million in matching funds from local partners. Covering the first two-thirds of the initiative, the report details the successes and challenges of efforts to revitalize and connect civic assets such as parks, trails, plazas, and libraries to positive social and economic outcomes and offers lessons learned for communities interested in exploring the potential of public spaces to bring residents from different backgrounds together, foster civic engagement, and advance environmental sustainability.
In Philadelphia, where the initiative was piloted in 2015 with $11 million from the Knight and the William Penn foundations, five new civic assets were created or rehabilitated, including a library, a recreation trail, a park, an old rail line, and a new lakeside office building. Detroit turned mass vacancy to its advantage by redefining it as an asset, engaging residents in converting twenty-six vacant lots and houses to create a park in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, and revitalizing the downtown commercial corridor. Revitalization efforts in Memphis have focused on addressing the legacy of segregation and rewriting the narrative by building community trust and engagement through a riverfront transformation project.
In Akron, community-driven planning efforts have solicited the input of low-income communities to ensure that new civic assets meet are accessible and meet their needs and are welcoming. And in Chicago, artist Theaster Gates is leading efforts to create a cultural district on the city's South Side anchored by an arts space in a former bank building in a neighborhood where the median income is half of what it is in the city overall and the unemployment and vacancy rates are twice the city average.
"The journey to create great public spaces is unique for each city, but the goal is the same: to strengthen community connection, trust, and engagement," said Sam Gill, Knight's vice president for communities and impact. "While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to revitalize and connect civic assets, these case studies show the most successful strategies are those shaped by resident insights and involvement."
(Photo credit: Reimagining the Civic Commons)