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A fresh approach to civic asset investment

American Cities, Arts & Culture, Detroit

Report finds Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative shaped by emphasis on outcomes and a portfolio approach to public-space assets

Since 2015, the Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) national initiative has sought to revitalize and connect civic assets with people of all backgrounds, create more resilient communities and reverse trends of economic and social fragmentation in cities.

The initiative brings together teams of residents, local civic leaders and representatives from philanthropic organizations to revitalize public-space assets including parks, libraries, trails and community centers to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.

In 2016, the Kresge Foundation joined the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation to scale an initial pilot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to include support for local efforts in four additional U.S. cities – Akron, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; and Kresge’s hometown, Detroit, Michigan.

Reimagining the civic commons in Detroit

Market on the Ave hosts vendors providing locally grown food and handmade craft, along with live programming in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood.

Bree Gant, 2019

Detroit’s project, convened by the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department, supports the development of a network of civic commons sites in the Livernois-McNichols and Fitzgerald neighborhoods.

RCC has helped foster increased coordination among neighborhood partners to expand community programming and events, as well as the conversion of what had been vacant lots and abandoned houses into Ella Fitzgerald Park and greenways that enhance resident connections to one another and to nature.

The coordination efforts reached an important milestone in 2019 when the Live6 Alliance, a collaborator in Detroit’s project, launched Neighborhood HomeBase, a storefront community space for residents to gather while connecting with neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and civic leaders.

Fitzgerald is also seeing increased reinvestment and reactivation along its commercial corridor on West McNichols Road including the rehabilitation of several new community storefronts.

Findings from five years of experimentation

A new Urban Institute report offers key takeaways on the policy and practice dimensions of Reimagining the Civic Commons.

The report, “Civic Assets for More Equitable Cities” examines RCC’s approach to civic assest invesment in cities and identifies core lessons that can be applied by civic leaders, policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and local and regional philanthropists seeking to reimagine civic spaces in their cities.

The researchers determined that the initiative’s emphasis on outcomes and a portfolio approach to thinking about spaces shifted how stakeholders lead, govern, manage and approach civic assets. This shift in mindset can catalyze lasting community and systems change.

More specifically, demonstration cities are shifting:

  • away from siloed leadership practices to more collaborative leadership;
  • away from traditional structures and practices to more strategic operation; and
  • away from accepting the status quo to adopting an innovation mindset.

“This new Urban Institute report validates our central idea that creating and enhancing shared spaces fosters connections, builds community and promotes commerce,” said Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of Kresge’s Detroit Program. “The report also gives us a roadmap to take this work further and ensure its sustainability.”

The report recommends strategies for catalyzing local systems change that normalize an outcomes-oriented approach to civic-asset investment:

  • Focus not just on placemaking but “placekeeping;”
  • Revamp community and economic development funding;
  • Advocate for policy change at all levels to support investment in public spaces;
  • Institutionalize support of civic commons; and
  • Measure outcomes that matter.

RiverPlay, transforming a 4-lane street into a pop-up park, was one of Memphis’ early pilots that has informed permanent investments in its riverfront parks.

The Fourth Bluff, 2017

To aid in the measurement of outcomes, RCC developed a system to track a range of metrics organized around four key goals: civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability and value creation.

A portfolio of assets

In a recent discussion hosted by the Design Trust for Public Space, Chantel Rush, managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s American Cites Program, discussed the connection between space and equity.

“Through the Civic Commons work, our city partners considered separate public assets a portfolio, and discovered that together, these collections of assets could work together to deliver more to a community,” Rush said.

In Memphis, a Kresge focus city, the 6-block area adjacent to downtown and the Mississippi River named the Fourth Bluff has been transformed into a series of vibrant and dynamic civic spaces activated by innovative, free and inclusive programming. The space is home to the historic Cossitt Library, River Line Trail, Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park. Today, Memphians from all backgrounds can gather there to connect with nature and one another.

Shamichael Hallman, branch manager at Memphis Public Library and civic engagement manager at The Fourth Bluff described the significance of spaces that bring together people of all backgrounds and incomes.

“I think the degree to which we’ve been able to encourage socioeconomic mixing [through] the design of these spaces and … the cultivation of stewards and champions and such has really created this space where there’s just a really nice mix of people that are showing up and interacting with each other, and I think that’s a huge accomplishment being in the South,” Hallman said.

Centering residents in planning

Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program supports the Urban Institute with the implementation of Creative Placemaking in its strategy development. Creative Placemaking – the nontraditional approach to arts and culture – uplifts equitable, creative approaches to urban planning and community development to shape and drive healthy communities.

To successfully reimagine civic spaces, residents must be at the center of the planning phase, said Regina Smith, managing director of the Arts & Culture Program.

“From greenspace activation to vacant land development, the insights offered in this report are great examples of how creative, place-based, human-centered practices can contribute to more equitable solutions in neighborhoods with the greatest need,” Smith said. “Using creative, resident-centered methods to design, develop and steward open spaces in disinvested neighborhoods is key. To truly restore our cities, we must activate residents’ voices to change the narrative around people with low incomes. Only then can we repair the social fabric in communities damaged by decades of disinvestment.”

In May, the initiative welcomed five new U.S. cities: Lexington, Kentucky; Macon, Georgia; Miami, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and San José, California.

The Urban Institute report was authored by Gillian Gaynair, Mark Treskon, Joseph Schilling and Gabriella Velasco.  Read more at: