Community-centered technology can power the future of public spaces – Knight Foundation

Community-centered technology can power the future of public spaces

On March 15, 2022, Knight Foundation announced a $1 million investment in the Highline Network and Miami’s Underline to transform public spaces with resident-centered technology. Kelly Jin shares more below.

Free and contiguous high-speed internet through a 10-mile corridor serving 250,000 residents. Augmented reality tours that show residents the untold history of their neighborhood’s development. Computer vision algorithms that can identify patterns of how residents use public spaces. These are just a few examples of how cities are harnessing technology to build more dynamic public spaces. 

At Knight Foundation, our Community and National Initiatives (CNI) program invests in public spaces because they cultivate strong bonds between communities, attaching residents to their neighbors and their neighborhoods. Since 2015, Knight has invested more than $100 million in public space projects across the country. We believe dynamic and inclusive public spaces are essential for the long-term health and well-being of cities. Over the last two years, the use of public spaces boomed as the pandemic forced residents outdoors to exercise, relax and recharge.

Our research shows that the most successful spaces put residents at the center of development and embrace flexibility and innovation in their planning. And, technology can help make these public spaces more accessible and engaging for everyone — for example, by making parks more accessible to residents with disabilities, to support English language learners and ultimately breaking down barriers between residents and decision-makers. 

We’re doubling down on our investments at the intersection of technology and public space because we believe technology is a critical element of engaging public spaces that creates more informed and engaged communities. 

Today, Knight announced two grants that highlight our emphasis on tech as a means to achieve this goal. One of them will go to The High Line Network, a program of the High Line that supports a group of 37 infrastructure reuse projects across North America focused on transforming underutilized urban infrastructure into more inviting landscapes. The network will use Knight’s $250,000 investment to launch an accelerator program, giving community organizations more resources to identify their own technology needs and implement tech tools to better serve their residents.

The Underline, a member of The High Line Network, will use the other grant to expand high-speed internet connectivity along the entire 10-mile public park, trail and art destination under Miami’s Metrorail. This grant is especially notable because it demonstrates how community planners can use private funds to attract more public support for technology development projects. Knight’s $800,000 investment will secure an additional $3.2 million in federal, state and local dollars for The Underline’s technology initiatives. Eventually, this project will increase high-speed internet access for millions of users.

Investments like these demonstrate how technology can responsibly increase community engagement with public spaces. This year, Knight’s public space team (more about them below) seeks to identify opportunities that help answer the question, How can technology in the public realm responsibly improve the lives of our residents and encourage more people to participate in civic life? We seek opportunities that: 

  • Grow community knowledge and talent at the intersection of public space and public realm; and 
  • Pilot new ways of engaging residents with local public spaces and measuring attachment through place using data and technology.

Knight Foundation public space team

  • Lilly Weinberg, senior director of Knight’s CNI program, brings in her knowledge and experience in community-led development of public spaces and expertise in co-leading Knight’s public spaces strategy and the Foundation’s multimillion dollar investments in 18 small-to-midsize Knight communities. 
  • Kyle Kutuchief, Knight’s Akron program director, who was recently appointed Knight representative on the Reimagining the Civic Commons national steering committee, is ideally suited to identify best the opportunities and challenges our local communities face with his experience leading the Foundation’s work in Akron, Ohio.
  • Bernardo Rivera Munozcano, Knight’s CNI program officer, contributes his experience with innovative approaches to policy making and ethical use of technology gained from working for two of the largest cities in the Americas.

We look forward to exploring these questions as we work to make public spaces welcoming to everyone, and I encourage you to reach out to our public spaces team members. Knight’s research shows that effective public spaces must be designed with residents at the center of the work. Technology plays a key role in helping public spaces meet the needs of diverse communities, and it unlocks the benefits of our connected society. Smart, tech-powered community development could help ensure our parks, waterfronts and urban landscapes stay vibrant for decades to come.

Kelly Jin is the vice president for Community and National Initiatives at Knight Foundation.

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