How a civic commons can build better community connections

C. Nicole Mason, an author and social justice advocate, makes this point about poverty in a recent column for the Big Think web forum:

When people think of poverty they think in terms of money and material resources, but a large part of being poor is suffering from a lack of social connections and networks, and living in a low-income area with no infrastructure that enables the leap up to the middle class.

In the piece, titled “What Causes Poverty? Not a Lack of Money, but a Lack of Social Relationships,” she goes on to say, “If institutions and leaders want to support and elevate poor communities…they need to provide better infrastructure (like libraries, parks, good grocery stores, and hospitals) as well as bridging programs both within the community and, very importantly, outside of it, so people can get in contact with people outside of their normal social network.”

This week, KnightKresgeJPB and Rockefeller foundations are launching the Reimagining the Civic Commons Initiative. The initiative, announced today, will fund experiments that pursue exactly what Dr. Mason is asking for, investments and a reimagination of how we can build and program our civic assets so that they foster civic engagement and help build connections (and social capital) in our communities.

The initiative is a $40 million investment in the cities of Akron, Ohio; Chicago; Detroit; and Memphis, Tennessee. It seeks to demonstrate how a connected set of civic assets—parks, libraries, trails and community centers—can “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.”

Reimagining the Civic Commons builds on the work Knight started in 2015 with the William Penn Foundation to test strategies for revitalizing and connecting five civic assets in Philadelphia. Our goal is to foster civic engagement not only through the new ideas showcased by the demonstration projects but also the process of bringing the community together to generate those new approaches. Our support to the cities will help them find ways to use parks, libraries and rec centers to enable people to contribute to – and take an active part in – the life of their community.

This is urgent work. The challenges we face in our communities—increasing segregation, polarization, the lack of economic mobility—are continuing to drive disconnection. We spend less time with our neighbors, we are more distrustful, we rarely visit and build connections with other neighborhoods. Meanwhile we continue to underinvest in the civic assets we already have. Our cities struggle to fund parks, libraries, rec centers while these same services struggle to be relevant to the changing interests of their communities.

Reimagining the Civic Commons leverages these existing civic assets that were once the pride of our communities. The demonstration projects will show how these public spaces can serve as neutral ground, where rich and poor and new and old members of the community can encounter each other and hopefully build common purpose.

It also builds on the energy and innovation Knight has been cultivating in our communities through the Knight Cities Challenge and the Emerging City Champions fellowship program. The civic innovators in this growing network are engaging residents with new ideas that draw more people into the conversations and the activities that make them more attractive places to live—and more successful cities.

We believe that reimagining how public spaces are designed and function will create spaces that enhance opportunity – building pathways that connect more people and build social capital. Diverse, socio-economically mixed public spaces can promote equitable and inclusive communities, and each of us, and our democracy, benefits.

Benjamin de la Peña is director of community and national strategy at Knight Foundation. Email him via [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @benjiedlp.

Learn more about Reimagining the Civic Commons at

The Knight Cities Challenge runs Oct. 10 to Nov. 3, 2016, seeking the best ideas to make the 26 Knight communities more successful. Learn more at

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