Knight Foundation image

Twenty thousand C-notes for the 'civic commons'

Major foundations are investing $20 million into four cities, matched by local funds, to revitalize underutilized assets and improve the public realm at the neighborhood scale.

The breaking news today is good for Akron, Detroit, Chicago, and Memphis—four post-industrial cities—that will be getting $20 million from the Knight, Kresge, Rockefeller, and JPG foundations, matched by local funding sources, to connect civic assets and improve public spaces. These cities join Philadelphia, which received $5.4 million in 2014 from the James L. Knight Foundation as a pilot grant, in 2014.

Judging by what is taking place in Philadelphia in the Reimagining the Civic Commons project, the grants will focus on revitalizing underutilized industrial and natural assets in neighborhoods that lack investment. Philadelphia has five projects under this program: A "High Line" like rail park in the Callowhill area of Center City, a section of Fairmount Park near a poor neighborhood that will be revitalized, making use of an abandoned reservoir, a mile-long trail that connects Center City to the nation's oldest botanical garden, and reusing a closed library as a community center. The sites receiving special attention and investment are neighborhood assets, several of which have the potential to be city-wide and even regional amenties.

Foundations are concerned that America is becoming more fragmented socially, evidenced by fewer people who know their neighbors, and that the poor and the rich are increasingly segregated and isolated. Investing in civic assets is a way to encourage people to go outside to improve physical and mental health and to meet diverse citizens.

Below is the full press release:

A new national initiative to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability launched today 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 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.”

In 2015, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy and local partners embarked on a three-year, $11 million pilot project of Reimagining the Civic Commons, supported by Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, to test strategies for revitalizing and connecting civic assets. This experiment helped to spur public support and legislative action for a new revenue source for Rebuild, an unprecedented $300 million investment in the city’s parks, recreation centers and libraries.

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.”

To learn more about Reimagining the Civic Commons and explore plans for the initiative in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia, please visit: In the coming months, the website will be updated with research, metrics and stories from each of the partner communities.

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