Philadelphia: Building a stronger city through public spaces

communities / Article

May 24, 2018 by Patrick J. Morgan

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Photo by Garen M. on Flickr.

Philadelphia’s public spaces are experiencing a resurgence. From recently opened Lovett Library Park to excitement around the soon to be open Cherry Street Pier, new investments in these community centerpieces have created deeper connections between people and their city and invited a cross-section of residents to participate in building the kind of neighborhoods where they want to live. 

At Knight Foundation, public spaces form an important part of our work in cities. Beyond the opportunity to meet neighbors, enjoy local arts and culture and take a jog or spend time with family, they help to strengthen civic engagement and the attachment people feel for their cities — both prerequistes for creating more informed and engaged communities. Recent research by the Center for Active Design reinforces this purpose, showing that public spaces can help to facilitate community connection, trust and involvement.

Philadelphia is paying attention to this opportunity. The city has committed $300 million to public spaces over seven years through the Rebuild Initiative, which aims to revitalize local parks, recreation centers, playgrounds and libraries. The effort expands upon the main goals of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative piloted in Philadelphia, that seeks to bring people together, by revitalizing and connecting public spaces and countering the economic and social fragmentation that are all too common.

Initially launched in 2014 by the Knight and the William Penn foundations, the initiative has helped local leaders transform five of the city’s neighborhood public spaces. Leaders take risks, scale new ideas and share lessons learned through a growing network of nonprofit, public and community partners. In this way, the approach leverages public-private investments while creating a unique role to help residents shape their city.

Last fall, Knight Foundation doubled down on its public space support in Philadelphia, following up on what we learned from Reimagining the Civic Commons. We announced $3.28 million in new funding to Fairmount Park Conservancy and partners to develop a citywide, civic engagement strategy to connect people to their neighborhoods and to each other. Since then, Knight-funded trainings and activities have helped jumpstart participation and energy around public spaces. This includes the first-ever citywide summit for hundreds of library and public space volunteers and neighborhood partners to come together to share new ideas and learn from each other.

In addition to these broader efforts, locally, we are seeing more community members exercise their civic muscles by volunteering at parks and libraries, creating new community groups to shape activities at rec centers, or getting involved in new art or tech programs in libraries and other public spaces. 

Building on this momentum, we have committed an additional $800,000 to four of our Reimagining the Civic Commons partners: the John Bartram Association, Reading Terminal Market Corporation, Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, and Mt. Airy USA. 

As with our prior investments the funding captures three main themes:

  • Using place as a platform: The John Bartram Association will test ideas around the role of public space that are bigger than the space itself, exploring ways to make historic Bartram’s Garden a destination for civic enagagement. It will work to create a space that puts residents at the center of planning efforts to redevelop their neighborhood and waterfront, and where those concerned about challenges, such as displacement and gentrification, can discuss and take action on these efforts.
  • Building community through public space: Mt. Airy USA and the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation will explore public space programming and activities aimed at bringing people together and creating long-lasting community connection. Both will introduce tools to measure impact and interactions and use results to scale and adjust in partnership with neighbors. 
  • Advancing creativity and collaboration: Reading Terminal Market will work with partners to reinvent the adjacent Filbert Street through unique public programming and amenities. It will focus on quick, flexible improvements that will invite people onto the street, connect them to a central public space in new ways, and appeal to a growing community of people interested in local food and creative endeavors.

Linking these investments is an on-the-ground effort to better understand how public spaces can help sustain a community’s engagement in issues important to them. Through this exploration, shared lessons and real-time experiments, we hope to invite all Philadelphians to build a stronger city. 

Patrick Morgan is the program director for Philadelphia at Knight Foundation. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @PMorganPHL.

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