Get with the program: Developing an action plan for successful cities

If you’ve ever hired an architect to design a project, you probably spent a lot of time up front talking about the “program” for the project. The program describes how you want to use the space and the activities you want the space to support. If you are renovating a home (as I am currently), you might say, I want to make sure I have space that meets my needs for work I have to do at home or encourages me to do sit-ups when the mood strikes.

The same is true of the buildings and public spaces that make up a city. All of these places can be programmed to encourage and discourage certain behaviors.

Take, for instance, offices of the latest tech firms. They are all designed to encourage employees to meet and mingle serendipitously so that they share ideas. Co-working and incubator spaces are usually heavy on social areas, too.  

Or take New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor passionately promoted the concept of “active design” to promote physical activity and health through design.   

At Knight, we’ve been asking what role place might play in supporting, even accelerating, the things we believe matter most to the success of cities: talent, opportunity and engagement. To explore that question, we have invited 75 researchers, designers, policymakers, artists and practitioners to Miami in May for a Knight-hosted Civic Innovation in Action Studio. 

In preparation for the studio, we have assembled researchers who have explored the effect place has on talent, opportunity and engagement to review their findings with us. (You may have seen the tweets from our first session on advancing opportunity at #knightcities.) Short summaries of that research, along with links to full papers, are here.  We also commissioned design research on each topic in an attempt to gain new insights from “users” and adjacent fields of work. 

This background material is being used to set the stage for two days of work in the May studio where participants will generate ideas to be tested in the field that use place to accelerate talent, opportunity and engagement.

This is speculative work. There are no guarantees that what we generate in the studio will result in success. It’s only a first step. But we hope to emerge with a set of ideas that will allow us to think differently about the potential of place to work harder in delivering what cities need to be successful. At minimum, we’ll put a new set of questions on the civic agenda. At best, we will learn something about how to begin answering those questions. 

Imagine your city as full of places that maximize talent, advance opportunity and make engagement the default behavior. We’re hoping to help program those places with some of what we learn, not just in Knight communities but in cities everywhere. Some of the ideas that emerge will help frame our work in the months and years ahead and underpin tools we develop for everyone concerned about creating successful cities. Let’s get to work.

Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiatives

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