Rebuilding the commons in the city

Stark boundaries—rich vs. poor, black and brown vs. white—begin to break down as people share parks, trails, libraries, nature centers, and other gathering places.  With the promise of these projects beginning to shine, the city of Philadelphia is launching an expansion of the civic commons by investing $500 million to reinvigorate parks, libraries, playgrounds, and recreation centers. Called Rebuild, the program is a cornerstone of Mayor Jim Kenney’s goal to “move all of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods forward.” It is paid for in part by a new tax on sugar-laden drinks. 

For decades, the “Philadelphia Story” was about steady economic decline. That story is being rewritten today as many Americans rediscover the advantages of cities—inviting public spaces, rich cultural diversity and a creative environment that nurtures startups and attracts talent.

Young people, in particular, have moved here in droves, realizing they can enjoy the same kind of urban amenities as New York, Washington D.C., or Boston. New Americans immigrating from other nations also contribute to the city’s growth. But so far, Philadelphia’s comeback has been limited to certain parts of town. “We have one of the highest infusions of millennials coming here, but also some of the highest rates of poverty and economic segregation,”  Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell says.

Refusing to accept these disparities as inevitable, three years ago local leaders formed the “Reimagining the Civic Commons” initiative to show how growing prosperity could be spread more widely throughout the city, and its strategy is now being used in Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Akron.  This is not doing something for the community, it’s with the community.

Philadelphia’s early efforts show promise that urban revitalization does not inevitably translate to gentrification and dislocation, in which lower-income people are shoved away when neighborhoods bounce back economically.  The stark boundaries—rich vs. poor, black and brown vs. white—begin to break down as people share parks, trails, libraries, nature centers and other gathering places. 

The idea is that strengthening civic commons—shared places belonging to everyone—can lay groundwork for economic and social opportunity in surrounding neighborhoods. Philadephia’s civic commons push began as a partnership among two foundations—William Penn and Knight—working with nonprofit organizations, city staff, and citizens to improve public assets such as parks and libraries. 

This is not doing something for the community, it’s with the community, stresses Shawn McCaney, executive director of the William Penn Foundation. “Everyone doesn’t walk away when the last brick is laid. The people living in these neighborhoods have been involved in this work. They own it, and they are the people who will protect and steward these projects.”

Investing in civic commons is one way we can improve the city for everyone.  Studies show how better public spaces improve crime and economic development,” adds Ott Lovell, who was in the thick of civic commons planning as director of the Fairmont Park Conservancy, a civic group supporting public parks. “When you make a place more inviting, it helps out local businesses, it creates healthier communities, it changes the way people relate to one other.”

Philadelphia’s civic commons focuses on five public spaces shared by the whole city, which are located in or near disadvantaged communities:

  • A 37-acre man-made lake in Fairmount Park, fenced off for decades, will become Discovery Center, an education resource jointly run by the Audubon Society and Outward Bound offering nature and leadership programs for youth from across the city.
  • The nearby Strawberry Mansion community—a low-income area where handsome Victorian homes stand next to vacant lots—is working with the Discovery Center and Fairmount Park Conservancy to ensure local people feel welcome at the new $18 million facility. “It’s going to re-engage a generation of park users,” says Tonnetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation.  “And we are working to see that it will spark more private investment in our neighborhood without gentrifying it.”
  • The Rail Park is an urban trail connecting 10 diverse neighborhoods. Construction has begun to transform an abandoned rail line into a landscaped community space that runs 3 miles along an overhead viaduct, then through a tunnel and open-air cut beneath the streets.  The idea was conjured by artist Sarah McEneany more than 30 years ago. She shared the idea with friends and neighbors, slowly building support for a vision that many initially dismissed as overly ambitious. One of the people she convinced was Melissa Kim, who worked with the Asian Arts Initiative at the time. “It’s a diverse area with homeless shelters and high rise lofts, Chinese families and artists,” Kim says. “The Rail Park can offer an amenity for people in these neighborhoods connecting them with each other and the rest of the city.”
  • Bartram’s Mile, a new riverside bike and pedestrian path linking America’s oldest botanical garden with the rest of the city, has just opened. Tucked away on the Schuylkill River lies Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical center in the Americas, founded by naturalist John Bartram (a close friend of Benjamin Franklin) in the early 1700s.  Every year, this 45-acre sanctuary attracts more than 50,000 schoolchildren and nature lovers from across the region. But until recently, lower-income people living nearby in Southwest Philadelphia seldom stopped in to explore its gardens, woods and riverfront.  “Local people tell me they thought it was just for gardening enthusiasts or that they did not feel welcome,” explains Bartram’s Garden Director Maitreyi Roy. But that’s changing with new programming and Bartram’s Mile.  When a rail bridge refurbished for bikes and walkers opens next fall, connecting Bartram’s Mile with heavily traveled bike trails on the other side of the river, Southwest Philadelphia “will be just a 20-minute ride from the Center City on park trails,” Roy says.
  • Centennial Commons is a cluster of three recreation facilities on the site of Philadelphia’s 1876 World’s Fair, the nation’s first and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It attracted 10 million visitors and introduced bananas, popcorn, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. A grand stone gateway and the fair’s art gallery, now a Children’s Museum, are all that’s left of the historic 1876 event in what’s now a sleepy corner of Fairmount Park.  The area is generally empty—except for the museum, which is pricey for neighborhood residents—because there’s not much to do here. The Fairmount Park Conservancy is working with the community make Centennial Commons feel more inviting. Initial plans, drafted after months of community-driven discussion, call for traffic calming on busy streets bordering the area, new landscape architecture, and three deluxe recreation areas with climbing structures, nature attractions, a sprayground (a playground crossed with water park), and ice skating rinks.
  • Neighborhood residents will be hired to work on the project and receive mentoring to help them climb the ladder in the construction trades.
  • A library expansion and new park in the heart of racially mixed neighborhood will strengthen a community hub.  The Mount Airy neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia—which is about 60 percent African-American and 30 percent white—is recognized as one of the most stable racially integrated communities in America. The Lovett Memorial Library has long been a spot where the whole community comes together—a distinction that is sure to increase next fall with the opening of a library addition featuring a larger children’s section, increased technology capacity, improved ADA accessibility and a teen center. The library grounds will be upgraded into a full-fledged park, creating a lively civic center for Mount Airy.

With the promise of these projects beginning to shine, the city of Philadelphia is launching an expansion of the civic commons by investing $500 million to reinvigorate parks, libraries, playgrounds, and recreation centers. Called Rebuild, the program is a cornerstone of Mayor Jim Kenney’s goal to “move all of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods forward.” It is paid for in part by a new tax on sugar-laden drinks. It’s notable that while “soda taxes” have been rebuffed elsewhere (including Michael Bloomberg’s unsuccessful push in New York City), linking the tax to the popular idea of strengthening civic commons got the bill passed in Philadelphia, the first big city to do so.

“What can people do together that they can’t do alone?” That question is the essence of the civic commons approach to revitalizing neighborhoods, says Carol Coletta, who helped start Philadelphia’s initiative and now leads “Reimagining the Civic Commons” as senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation.

Launched last year by the JPB, Knight, Kresge, and Rockefeller foundations working in partnership with local funders in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Akron, Reimagining the Civic Commons’ mission is “to foster community, social mobility and economic opportunity by creating experiences and spaces where people of all backgrounds can exchange ideas and address common problems while making cities more environmentally sustainable in the process.”  

Lessons for Other Cities

Experiment – Let people do something and see what happens

“We’ve had a lot of success with pop-ups,” notes Patrick Morgan, the Knight Foundation’s Program Director for National and Community Initiatives. “Let people do something and see what happens.” Because Philadelphia’s first five civic commons initiatives are lengthy undertakings, experimentation reassures communities that things are actually happening and turns up innovations that can be incorporated into the finished project.

Identify tomorrow’s leaders

The civic commons presents a prime opportunity to “daylight” future leaders in neighborhoods and organizations, notes Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.  Jennifer Mahar, director of civic initiatives at the Fairmont Park Conservancy, underscores the importance of recognizing “field leaders”— second and third tier leaders in community and non-profit groups.

Make sure community involvement goes deep

Philadelphia’s civic commons employs a number of tools to make sure grassroots people stay involved with the projects—which include forging strong connections to peers in other neighborhoods and organizations and empowering them through new experiences and expertise. Mahar outlines three programs in which more than 40 community organizations are involved:

  • Learning Labs, in which community revitalization leaders from around the country worked with local people;
  • Learning Exchanges, in which community activists across the city shared their knowledge and stories with one another; and
  • Learning Journeys, in which delegations of community leaders visited other cities to gather ideas and inspiration.

Never underestimate the power of civic engagement

“It’s the unmined gold in our cities,” Philadelphia’s General Manager Michael DiBerardinis says. “That’s why we want to become the most civically engaged city in America.”

We needed a grassroots, ground-up way of working to make sure improvements reflect what the people really want—that’s important because it’s how the community will take ownership of these places,” says David Gould, who worked on the civic commons with the William Penn Foundation and is now deputy director of community engagement for the city’s Rebuild initiative.

Community engagement is the heart of civic commons work, Patrick Morgan adds. “You don’t just invest in the places but in the people who are doing the work. This takes the idea of engagement to a whole new level. You have an actual agreement between the city and the community around the unique needs of these places where people come together with people who aren’t just like them.”