Creating success in cities by reimagining the civic commons

Photo: Cyclists in Museum Park near Perez Art Museum Miami. Credit: Robertson Adams.

For more than 30 years, I’ve lived in the heart of downtown. Three cities, three downtown homes. So I especially enjoy living life in public and with strangers. It’s easy enough. In Miami, I just walk out my front door. I visit the parks across the street almost daily and the Perez Art Museum Miami at least once a month, use the Metromover regularly, and bike the Underline path on nice days.

That makes the trends documented in the new report from City Observatory especially disturbing to me. The report, “Less in Common,” builds a clear and compelling case that many of the civic assets that we all used to share have eroded or become fractured.

As the report’s author Joe Cortright writes, “We spend less time in public pools and more time in private gyms. We ride the bus or streetcar less and spend more time alone in our cars. High-income people increasingly live in separate wealthy neighborhoods, while people of modest means live in their own, less wealthy neighborhoods.

“Our city governments, schools, and communities are more fragmented and less inclusive than in days gone by. In many cases, in leisure, entertainment, and schools, we’ve enabled people to secede from the commons and get a different level and quality of service.”

What does it mean to us as a society when the all-embracing public places that once enabled our social capital stop being all-embracing? What does it mean when their use declines, and their users become a narrow niche of “consumers” versus a broad swath of citizens? What if, as a result, public support for these assets continues to erode? Does it mean that we the people will become more and more fragmented?

“Less in Common” raises that specter for our communities if current trends continue. And as we become more fragmented, we become less able to tackle the challenges that face us as communities and to talk out our differences in ways that lead to more understanding.

That’s one reason Knight Foundation, with the William Penn Foundation, launched an initiative we call Reimagining the Civic Commons. It is an attempt to remake the civic assets in our communities — our parks, recreation centers, libraries, pools, cultural centers, schoolyards, school buildings — and reclaim their original role as the democratizing spaces in America.

Our civic assets were once the pride of our communities. They served rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purpose among citizens was nurtured.

But as communities fragmented, public use of civic assets also fragmented. Those who could afford to purchase private services disappeared as regular users, turning instead to Amazon for their books, gym memberships in lieu of community centers, private school instead of public.

As a result, too many of our civic assets have lost broad public support. They are underinvested, misaligned with today’s consumer interests, disconnected from one another, and saddled with out-of-date technology and legacy systems. They are too often serving niche audiences, abandoning their original power as our equal opportunity community institutions.

Here we have this set of underperforming “sleepy” public assets, rich in possibility, but very low on the priority list of most mayors.

Building on the work Knight is funding with libraries and our public life/public space grants, we’re asking, “What would happen if we reimagined these civic assets as our new civic commons? Can we create new value and new opportunity for cities? Can we stir public imagination in this new civic commons such that it becomes a new priority for our cities?

These are the big questions we’re exploring in Philadelphia and in other Knight cities. Stay tuned.

Carol Coletta is vice president of community and national initiatives at Knight Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @ccoletta, and listen to her “Knight Cities” podcast with civic innovators every week

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