New $40 million initiative will “Reimagine the Civic Commons” in four U.S. cities – Knight Foundation

New $40 million initiative will “Reimagine the Civic Commons” in four U.S. cities

Initiative seeks to counter the growing economic and social fragmentation in our cities by revitalizing and connecting parks, libraries, community centers and other public spaces

A new national initiative to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability launched today with the announcement of a $40 million investment in public spaces in four U.S. cities. Reimagining the Civic Commons will support projects that revitalize and connect civic assets in Akron, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis. 

Four national foundations—The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation—are investing a total of $20 million, to be matched by $20 million from local sources. The four cities join Philadelphia, the location of a pilot that began in 2015, in a three-year demonstration of how investments in public spaces can reverse recent trends of economic and social fragmentation.

How a civic commons can build better community connections, by Benjamin de la Pena on KnightBlog

By revitalizing and connecting public spaces such as parks, libraries, trails and community centers, the initiative seeks to 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.

“We see this as a series of local experiments to interpret a common theme: what is the purpose of community spaces like parks, libraries, municipal buildings or even sidewalks?  What binds us to place and to each other?” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president. “Citizen engagement must be a cornerstone of our re-thinking how to use great civic spaces for today’s diverse and inclusive communities. This is a brilliant role for philanthropy and will be successful if neighbors and local government take the findings and make them theirs.”

As cities have become more fragmented socially and economically in recent years and the use of personal technology has advanced, broad-based support for public spaces has eroded.

At the same time, economic segregation, where residents live in either primarily low-income neighborhoods or primarily high-income neighborhoods, is on the rise. In fact, the number of high poverty neighborhoods in the core of metropolitan areas has tripled and their population has doubled between 1970 and 2010.

Americans are also less socially connected to their neighbors than they once were: a recent report from City Observatory shows that Americans are spending less time together in social settings, trusting each other less and interacting less regularly with people whose experiences are different from their own.

In addition, most cities are poorly prepared to deal with the harmful impacts of climate change, which fall disproportionately upon people who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

“The gulf separating high-income and low-income neighborhoods in some of the country’s largest cities is wide—and in recent years, it has grown even wider. This is not a new problem, but rather one that is critical to address now before it becomes insurmountable,” said Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation. “Connecting civic assets can increase and expand shared prosperity for neighborhoods, thereby creating more inclusive economies, communities, and cities.”

Reimagining the Civic Commons addresses these issues through investments in coordinated programming, design and technology that create connected and environmentally sustainable public spaces. Creating a civic infrastructure so compelling that it brings together people of different backgrounds will begin to reknit our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation.

“Our libraries, parks, community centers, and schoolyards once served rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purpose among people was nurtured,” said said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “By creating more places where people share experiences with people who are different from themselves, we can begin to bridge longstanding economic divisions and create new opportunities.”

In 2015, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy and local partners embarked on a three-year, $11 million pilot project of Reimagining the Civic Commons, supported by Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, to test strategies for revitalizing and connecting civic assets. This experiment helped to spur public support and legislative action for a new revenue source for Rebuild, an unprecedented $300 million investment in the city’s parks, recreation centers and libraries.

To provide tools and grow the resources needed to reknit communities across the country, Reimagining the Civic Commons will support a national Civic Commons Learning Network to coordinate a learning agenda, impact assessment and storytelling across the five demonstration cities. It will host cross-city learning opportunities and generate a series of toolkits to act as how-to resources for civic asset and city leaders in demonstration cities and beyond.

“The five demonstration cities paired with a national learning network represents an opportunity to build a new field of practice by taking former civic assets and reimagining them in ways that will increase and share prosperity for cities and neighborhoods,” said Barbara Picower, President of The JPB Foundation.  “When a city is able to reimagine its civic infrastructure it can breathe new life into its communities by providing public places that offer access to nature and opportunities to gather. Such investments can lead to vast improvements in the quality of life for the residents of those cities.”

To learn more about Reimagining the Civic Commons and explore plans for the initiative in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia, please In the coming months, the website will be updated with research, metrics and stories from each of the partner communities.

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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more visit

About The Kresge Foundation
The Kresge Foundation is a $3.6 billion private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, and community development in Detroit. In 2015, the Board of Trustees approved 371 grants totaling $125.2 million, and nine social investment commitments totaling $20.3 million. For more information, visit

About The JPB Foundation
The mission of The JPB Foundation is to enhance the quality of life in the United States through transformational initiatives that promote the health of our communities by creating opportunities for those in poverty, promoting pioneering medical research, and enriching and sustaining our environment.

About The Rockefeller Foundation
For more than 100 years, The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission has been to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world. Today, The Rockefeller Foundation pursues this mission through dual goals: advancing inclusive economies that expand opportunities for more broadly shared prosperity, and building resilience by helping people, communities and institutions prepare for, withstand, and emerge stronger from acute shocks and chronic stresses. To achieve these goals, The Rockefeller Foundation works at the intersection of four focus areas—advance health, revalue ecosystems, secure livelihoods, and transform cities—to address the root causes of emerging challenges and create systemic change. Together with partners and grantees, The Rockefeller Foundation strives to catalyze and scale transformative innovations, create unlikely partnerships that span sectors, and take risks others cannot—or will not. To learn more, please visit