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$40M initiative will “Reimagine the Civic Commons” in 4 U.S. cities

American Cities

A new national initiative to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability was launched with the announcement of a $40 million investment in public spaces in four U.S. cities. “Reimagining the Civic Commons” will support projects that revitalize and connect civic assets in Akron, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis.  

Four national foundations – the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation – are investing a total of $20 million, to be matched by $20 million from local sources. The four cities join Philadelphia, the location of a pilot that began in 2015, in a three-year demonstration of how investments in public spaces can reverse recent trends of economic and social fragmentation.

By revitalizing and connecting public spaces such as parks, libraries, trails and community centers, the initiative seeks to create experiences and spaces where people of all backgrounds can exchange ideas and address common problems, while making cities more environmentally sustainable in the process.

“We see this as a series of local experiments to interpret a common theme: what is the purpose of community spaces like parks, libraries, municipal buildings or even sidewalks?  What binds us to place and to each other?” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president. “Citizen engagement must be a cornerstone of our re-thinking how to use great civic spaces for today’s diverse and inclusive communities. This is a brilliant role for philanthropy and will be successful if neighbors and local government take the findings and make them theirs.”

As cities have become more fragmented socially and economically in recent years and the use of personal technology has advanced, broad-based support for public spaces has eroded.

At the same time, economic segregation, where residents live in either primarily low-income neighborhoods or primarily high-income neighborhoods, is on the rise. In fact, the number of high poverty neighborhoods in the core of metropolitan areas has tripled and their population has doubled between 1970 and 2010.

Americans are also less socially connected to their neighbors than they once were: a recent report from City Observatory shows that Americans are spending less time together in social settings, trusting each other less and interacting less regularly with people whose experiences are different from their own.

In addition, most cities are poorly prepared to deal with the harmful impacts of climate change, which fall disproportionately upon people who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

“The gulf separating high-income and low-income neighborhoods in some of the country’s largest cities is wide – and in recent years, it has grown even wider. This is not a new problem, but rather one that is critical to address now before it becomes insurmountable,” said Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation. “Connecting civic assets can increase and expand shared prosperity for neighborhoods, thereby creating more inclusive economies, communities and cities.”

Reimagining the Civic Commons addresses these issues through investments in coordinated programming, design and technology that create connected and environmentally sustainable public spaces. Creating a civic infrastructure so compelling that it brings together people of different backgrounds will begin to reknit our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation.

“Our libraries, parks, community centers, and schoolyards once served rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purpose among people was nurtured,” said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “By creating more places where people share experiences with people who are different from themselves, we can begin to bridge longstanding economic divisions and create new opportunities.”

To provide tools and grow the resources needed to reknit communities across the country, Reimagining the Civic Commons will support a national Civic Commons Learning Network to coordinate a learning agenda, impact assessment and storytelling across the five demonstration cities. It will host cross-city learning opportunities and generate a series of toolkits to act as how-to resources for civic asset and city leaders in demonstration cities and beyond.

“The five demonstration cities paired with a national learning network represents an opportunity to build a new field of practice by taking former civic assets and reimagining them in ways that will increase and share prosperity for cities and neighborhoods,” said Barbara Picower, President of The JPB Foundation.  “When a city is able to reimagine its civic infrastructure it can breathe new life into its communities by providing public places that offer access to nature and opportunities to gather. Such investments can lead to vast improvements in the quality of life for the residents of those cities.”

More information about Reimagining the Civic Commons and detailed plans for the initiative in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia are available at In the coming months, the website will be updated with research, metrics and stories from each of the partner communities.