Reimagining the Civic Commons

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a national initiative to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development in our cities.

By revitalizing and connecting public places such as parks, plazas, trails, and libraries, this initiative is designed to demonstrate how strategic investments in our civic assets can connect people of all backgrounds, cultivate trust and, counter the trends of social and economic fragmentation in cities and neighborhoods.

As planners, we know that the public realm is essential to vibrant, inclusive public life and the many benefits that can have. The fundamental questions Reimagining the Civic Commons is getting at are:

  • What if the civic commons won?
  • What would that look like?
  • What could that mean for creating and sustaining equitable cities and neighborhoods?

Answering these questions is especially urgent at a time when trust in our institutions and one another is so acutely challenged.

The initiative was first piloted in Philadelphia starting in 2014 by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation and then expanded nationally in 2016 to include Akron, Ohio; Chicago; Detroit; and Memphis, Tennessee.

The expanded initiative is a three-year, $40M demonstration supported by The JPB Foundation, the Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local funders. I have the privilege of engaging with this work and the initiative's national steering committee on behalf of the Knight Foundation.

This past September, during APA's 2017 Policy and Advocacy Conference, I had the opportunity to share Reimagining the Civic Commons with APA members for this first time during the closing plenary.

I was joined in that discussion by leaders representing three of the five demonstration teams: Alexa Bush, senior city planner, City of Detroit Planning and Development Department; Michael DiBerardinis, managing director, City of Philadelphia; and Daniel Rice, president and CEO, Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.

Our conversation explored the power of public places in advancing the goals of socioeconomic mixing and civic engagement and how Reimagining the Civic Commons as a national initiative inspires authentic local action.

Rice talked about leveraging public space investments along the Towpath Trail to reconnect residents in three distinct Akron neighborhoods. You can learn more about the Akron Civic Commons online here.

Bushv shared the efforts underway to create more walkable, urban life in the Fitzgerald neighborhood and how the team is connecting commons work to economic opportunities for neighborhood residents and other Detroiters.

DiBerardinis discussed how Philadelphia is building on the early successes and insights from their civic commons experience to launch Rebuild, a new $500 million program to revitalize neighborhood parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and libraries across the city.

Interested in what the Chicago and Memphis teams are up to?

The Chicago effort focuses on revitalizing the public realm the South and West sides utilizing principles of ethical redevelopment and with an emphasis on engaging and training the local workforce. The Memphis team is working to rethink the Fourth Bluff, a four block area in the downtown linked by running along the Mississippi River.

In addition to the links shared above, there are number of ways to engage with Reimagining the Civic Commons as the work moves forward.

Top image: "Spring Forward on Six Mile" event in Detroit, April 2017. Photo by Alexa Bush.

About the Author

Lynn M. Ross, AICP

Lynn M. Ross is the founder and principal of Spirit for Change Consulting, LLC, a boutique consulting firm that develops creative solutions with people serving the common good in evolving places.

December 12, 2017

By Lynn Ross