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Creating Sustainable Cities by 'Reimagining the Civic Commons'

Akron, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit will split $40 million in funding for small, local projects “at the bottom of every mayor’s budget list.”

Memphis Civic Commons

Four foundations will join forces to fund civic projects in four cities for a full $40 million. But instead of big anchor projects, this initiative is focusing on the little guys—on a bet that the investment will pay off in equitable revitalization, to be enjoyed by many, not just neighborhood elites.

On Thursday, the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation are launching a new initiative, “Reimagining the Civic Commons.” Matching an overall investment of $20 million with another $20 million from local sources, this initiative will improve civic assets in Akron, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit.

Those assets include vacant lots, closed-down schools, and neglected parks. Over a period of three years, the award cities will use funds from the Civic Commons program to transform these sites and revitalize their surrounding communities. In Memphis, that means reconstituting a library, a promenade, and two parks along four blocks of public land known as the “Fourth Bluff.” In Akron, the project will boost sites in three spots along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

Maybe even more important than the improvements to any specific sites or structures, though, is the test of a theory: that people of all backgrounds can take advantage of revitalization when it involves improving highly localized community assets.

“We started musing a couple of years ago about the fact that cities have this incredibly rich and distributed network of civic assets—libraries, parks, rec centers, community centers, swimming pools, playgrounds—that were all sort of at the bottom of every mayor’s budget list,” says Carol Coletta, a senior fellow with the Kresge Foundation's American Cities Practice. “They were having to fight for the crumbs at the bottom.”

Libraries and rec centers don’t spend as much money or hire as many people as, say, universities or hospitals. So parks and old school buildings don’t fall into the same category of anchor institution, Coletta explains. Nowhere close. But the advantage to more modest civic assets, the thinking goes, is that they’re everywhere. That means that cities can improve specific assets with the hopes of revitalizing communities that span economic classes.

This effort is rooted in a few concrete observations: one, that many Americans never interact with their neighbors, and two, that economic integration produces profound benefits for impoverished communities. Over the next three years, this association of foundations and cities means to test whether, by focusing their efforts (and capital) on localized improvements, they can bring neighbors together and integrate communities of different classes.

“These should be major assets for us,” Coletta says. “We had seen how cities had pursued big anchor strategies, around colleges and universities, using them to revitalize communities. We thought, ‘What if we could do the same with these smaller anchors?’”

How Chicago reimagines Kenwood Gardens, currently a strip of mostly neglected lots. (Chicago Arts + Industry Commons)

The project kicked off in 2015 with a pilot in Philadelphia, for which the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation invested $11 million in five projects identified by the Fairmount Park Conservancy. Other cities responded by identifying civic assets, assembling proposals, and finding local funding sources to match foundation support.

“It’s a three-year initiative,” Coletta says, “so we’re going to have to run really fast.”

Detroit’s involvement with the initiative started on a bike ride during a planner confab in Copenhagen, according to Maurice Cox, the planning director for the city of Detroit. He and Coletta got lost. “We had time to talk about the role of bicycle infrastructure as a civic asset,” Cox says.

Detroit is partnering with the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College to improve a civic commons located between the two institutions: a roughly half-mile future greenway in the city’s distressed Fitzgerald neighborhood. Together, with these colleges and the Live6 Alliance, a nonprofit community-development corporation, Detroit aims to build a greenway through vacant or abandoned lots along the Livernois Corridor. This roughly 20-acre greenway will link a converted Immaculata High School building (now owned by Marygrove) with an underused Mercantile Building (near the University of Detroit Mercy campus).

“Over the course of the fall we’ll be engaging residents in helping us imagine the kind of anchor programming that might be youth-serving, might have a senior component, but genuinely creates a resource where the university or college can find some common ground,” Cox says, referring to the buildings that will anchor the Detroit program.

It’s up to the cities to decide how best to use the Civic Commons funds. Most of those uses in Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, and Akron have yet to be decided; one exception is the South Side Chicago bank that the artist Theaster Gates is turning into an “arts palace.” For all of these civic assets, Coletta says that there are four metrics that the initiative will use to evaluate progress:

  • Did the investment improve the reputation of the neighborhood?
  • Is there socioeconomic diversity of income happening around the site?
  • Has the investment improved the environmental sustainability of the neighborhood? (Which is measured by increased access to nature, ecological indicators such as improved tree canopy or stormwater management, or increased walkability and bikeability.)
  • Is there new political support for these assets? (Is there a commitment to sustaining the asset’s operation? Does the community want it?)

All of which are difficult to achieve, of course. Each of the four cities will have common metrics and measurements to gauge the success of the program. Coletta says that the foundations will contribute knowledge and expertise across the initiative’s project sectors. But she adds that these communities largely have all the expertise they need, and that this initiative primarily aims to break down silos between certain assets or departments. “One thing we’re already seeing is incredible networking going on,” Coletta says.

The foundations will be watching closely to make sure that the gains are won by diverse communities, not just the better off within a socioeconomic divide. In the end, the ultimate success of the initiative will be measured by success: If investments in these assets are popular and help turn around neighborhoods, then they will draw support from the communities they serve.

“This has to be powerful enough that mayors and city councils and citizens and civic asset leaders can say: ‘We want more of this,’” Coletta says.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.