Illustrations by Ryan Thacker of Might, Could

In 2015, Dash Marshall was commissioned by the Knight Foundation to develop a short film exploring the ways in which Philadelphia might change if new life were breathed into public spaces and public goods by “reimagining” their use. You’ll find the film below, and a few words on our approach to speculative design and civic futures. This essay, however, is our own perspective on the ideas behind what has since become Reimagining the Civic Commons, a $40m investment in five American cities that we’re honored to be a part of.


Public pools, schools, parks, streets, libraries and other properties are the things we all own together. They form our ‘civic commons’ which may be defined as the whole of the public realm, both outside and inside of buildings. In many American cities the commons are a muscle in danger of atrophy. As interest in living and working in downtowns and urban cores grows around the country, more people are betting that cities — long the underdog in American life — are roaring back.

This rekindled urban spirit brings a number of hard challenges into focus. Will there be affordable housing? Is it easy and convenient to move around the city? Are there jobs? Calls to develop 21st century answers to the pillars of urban life such as transit, housing, energy, social justice, will only increase with the urban population. These are big questions that will no doubt require significant investment towards new answers, and each promises to continue provoking contentious debate.

On the other hand, the physical landscape of today’s cities are dotted with existing structures, patches of land, and rights of way that could be doing even more for the communities they serve. Intangibles are critical too: the diversity of our society means our communities are made up of individuals who each possess deep wells of know-how and passion that could become a stronger part of public life in America.

Compared to the task of investing in future assets that have yet to be designed, debated, and decided, maximizing our use of existing resources — both tangible and intangible — is close to hand and relatively cheap.

Shrewd investors look for ways to maximize the performance of undervalued, stranded, or overlooked resources — and that’s exactly what the commons are today. Focusing on the commons at this point in time leverages the resurgence of interest in American cities and the sunk costs already invested in the fabric of our cities. Reimagining the civic commons is not limited to the re-use of existing assets, but that’s where it starts.

Between Silos & Outside of Hierarchies

By their very nature, the assets that populate the commons are largely inherited from the past, and that means they bring with them with the baggage of previous decisions (and the mind sets of past decision-makers). When the guesses made decades ago are still a good match for today’s needs, the benefits are shared. But what seemed like a good idea in a previous era does not always line up with today’s needs.

The industrial society of the 20th century favored pairing human pursuits like education with a singular institution, like school. But these pairings created expected relationships in both directions. What did schools do? They were houses of education. Who were they for? Students. One-to-one relationships produced a rigid system of silos that allowed institutions to divide and conquer in an attempt to meet the needs of society.

In the 21st century it’s more useful to think about human needs, and those rarely fall neatly into one silo or another, nor are they static. To continue with schools as an example, learning does not just happen in the school facility but continues at home, on the sports field, in museums, on the job, and so on.

Likewise, schools themselves are little more than containers for a bundle of resources including kitchens, gyms, classrooms, bathrooms, and others. Their primary role should always be facilitating learning, but what might schools be useful for in addition to educating children? Who else has needs that could be met by the resources of a “school” if we were open to groups other than students, teachers, and staff?

Many communities already use school parking lots, playing fields, and auditoriums for extracurricular purposes, but what if we challenged ourselves to think of further ways that schools and the other elements of the commons could be utilized? What benefits would emerge if the use of these spaces became mixed between different generations? Can schools play a more active role in our strategies for economic development and resilience similar to how they’re already factored into crisis response plans?

If we can imagine that a school’s myriad facilities might be useful to other groups, then we can extend this idea and explore what happens when an entire school system is rethought to from a “both and” perspective of serving students and others? As an aside, the opposite is also provocative: many of the specialized spaces contained inside a school already exist elsewhere in our communities. London-based Architecture Zero-Zero explored the use of community spaces to eliminate “school” buildings in their Scale Free Schools proposal.

As the work of Reimagining the Civic Commons progresses, the most visible results will be in the types of activities that happen in the commons, the influx of people who are drawn into common spaces of understanding, and in the physical changes to the buildings and open spaces. These will show up in press photos celebrating the projects, but the hardest and most important work will be happening behind the scenes as the people who manage the spaces and places of the commons carefully experiment with ways to share responsibility, dissolve silos, and escape hierarchies.

Competitive Edge

Our civic assets were largely designed and built at a time when they could reasonably be considered to hold a monopoly on the services they offered to city-dwellers. Today, however, they’re an option among many. Public pools compete with those in private backyards, condo basements, and gyms. The library as access point for the world’s knowledge is playing a different role in light of the internet and the dropping costs of media. Public parks still have a monopoly on green space in most cities, but the funding landscape around them has changed.

The piece “125 Swimming Pools” by Jenny Odell shows in a glance the competitive landscape of “pools” in an unspecified warm place—perhaps Los Angeles. Large multi-lane pools are ‘competing’ with their backyard counterparts for use (and investment).

Competition cuts both ways. If civic assets face unexpected competition for the utility and benefits they provide, we have to ask ourselves what inherent advantages the commons hold above and beyond private alternatives. A look at the developments of leading technology companies can lend useful insights.

Despite being fiercely competitive with one another, the titans of Silicon Valley have been on a building spree in recent years and many favor the approach of erecting ‘walled gardens.’ The formula is simple: attract world-class talent, build them a campus chock full of high-class amenities that meets their every need, and hope that they spend as much time there as possible. Apple’s new campus in Cupertino, CA literally encloses a 24 acre private park.

Apple’s new campus, currently under construction in California, with its own private donut hole of greenery.

But if the walled garden approach is about providing workspace, safety, food, leisure, and greenery that are accessible in equal measure to all employees with the minimum amount of hassle… that represents a significant portion of the mission statement for a city! Try as they might to create private utopias, engineered serendipity is still no match for the boundless complexity, surprise, and delight of a thriving city. Unlike companies whose walled-off benefits are available to a selective few, our best cities are democratic spaces that welcome diverse publics. Being truly open is a promise that only the commons is able to sustain.

Millennium Park in Chicago

In previous eras the civic commons were a trophy signifying a successful city. Any reasonably successful community should celebrate itself by building great parks and libraries, the logic went. Reimagining the Civic Commons is testing a different script. The commons are not a trophy, they’re an engine. The hypothesis is that strengthening the commons and filling them with life is what attracts, integrates, and excites a diverse public.

This role as attractor and integrator is the competitive edge of the civic commons. The benefits flow to all, not just multinationals who can bankroll walled gardens. Citizens enjoy access to high quality services that are meaningful to their daily lives. Businesses benefit from access to the greater talent drawn in. And communities are strengthened by fostering empathy between people who spend time together in the spaces of the commons.

Civicness

Though fundamentally moored to publicly-owned assets, the civic commons are not exclusive of private entities. On the contrary, a blended approach with roles for public and private innovations recognizes that, from the taverns and public inns of the colonial era to the coffee shops and coworking spaces of today, private entities have always played an important part in our common lives. Even when the proprietors do not explicitly set out to “be civic,” select local hardware shops, cafes, delis, and other neighborhood joints help bring us together. When attuned to local needs, commercial entities can and do play a civic role.

Spotted at Sister Pie in Detroit: An invitation to spread generosity, one slice of pie at a time. In their own words: “Whether it’s for someone in need, someone who has never tried Sister Pie, or someone who forgot their wallet at home, this option embraces the spirit of giving we hold dear to our hearts.”

The certain something that makes a private business relevant to this discussion is the quality of ‘civicness.’ While concentrated in civic assets like parks and libraries, we also find civicness in private venues like the restaurant that lets visitors from a nearby park use their bathrooms, or in the grocery store who dedicates a wall to posting neighborhood needs and announcements. Civicness means more than simply being open to the public. It entails a generosity of spirit that enables and encourages links within the networks of the commons.

At this time our grasp of civicness as a characteristic that can be embodied by diverse actors is still developing. We are building a more sophisticated understanding of civicness as it is nurtured in different ways by public and private entities.

Future Proofing

Cities and their contents are conversations that do not end. When thinking about what our civic assets should be and how they support our needs and desires as a community, there is no ‘right answer’ that will be stable and consistent for the rest of time. Libraries are a great example.

Walk into a neighborhood library and it’s not uncommon to spot someone sitting awkwardly on the floor or the edge of a sofa — the only place they could find a tenuous link between their laptop and an available power outlet. As laptops and mobile devices become prevalent, the basic need for good wifi signal or a sufficient number of power outlets highlights the extent to which a culture can change more rapidly than the walls it builds. Libraries may be filled with books, but as an American institution the library has more often than not been about helping people help themselves. The modes of help, like culture, change over time.

The same logic applies to the civic commons at large. Accepting that the ‘right answer’ for how an asset serves its community is going to be in constant evolution asks those who design, build, and maintain the commons to shift their stance from being providers to being enablers. This has strong implications for both the physical assets and the organizations that build and maintain them. As Charlie Leadbeater has summarized elsewhere more eloquently, services are best when developed with the public, not for it.

Let’s be honest: when services are developed with, not for, the public there’s a lot of extra work that has to happen compared to today’s model. More effort is needed to communicate what’s at stake, including the maintenance and longterm implications of various options on the table. More effort is required to make sure that the least heard voices have a chance to speak up. More coordination is required to make sense of all the voices as a chorus. And yet, these extra burdens are outweighed by the dividends paid when truly involving citizens in the development and provision of public services. This is because the American people bring with them a near limitless source of capital: resourcefulness.

A gentleman in Lexington, KY making use of power outlets and wifi under an outdoor market shed. Why not the library? We were unable to inquire. Humans are nothing if not resourceful.

When something doesn’t meet their needs, Americans are inventive at finding alternatives. Today that resourcefulness has largely been directed at ways of working around perceived barriers: Food trucks that skirt the more capital intensive requirements of a brick and mortar restaurant, ‘cowpaths’ trod expediently across prim parks, parklets that cleverly skip past the regulatory pain of changing the streetscape, so-called sharing economy companies that reap billions today in the penumbra of yesterday’s laws… the examples could go on.

Open Streets event in Detroit, 2016
Sidewalk chalk at Open Streets pictured above. Some things cannot be fixed by temporary or light-touch interventions.

The greatest strides toward reimagining the commons will emerge where everyday innovators are met with a collaborative spirit by key gatekeepers in the civic commons, including the public sector. Better tools and processes are needed to make room for enabling more constructive debate and inviting resourcefulness of all kinds. This will include developing methods that help communities grapple with the realities of the situation at hand and avoid moments where the collective act of “having your say” leads to a laundry list of demands and dreams that are left for a mysterious “them” to enact. In the commons there is only “us.”

Getting Real

As much as the ‘what’ of innovation in the civic commons will be about core needs such as enhancing mobility, work, health, energy, and learning, the success of these initiatives is more likely to hinge on how things are done. By definition the commons are manifested through collaborative and group efforts, which means that relationships are the currency of success. Like any relationship, including those we have in our personal lives, communication is key.

Although communication with the public is necessarily directed at a large and diverse constituency, that doesn’t mean the language used has to be generic. For example, consider the two statements:

“Thank you for your contribution”

“Thank you for being the 974th person to contribute”

Of these two, the second is more compelling due to something behavioral economists call ‘priming.’ A more specific form of communication inevitably sparks questions: who are the other 973? Why did I wait so long? Who will be the 1000th person? When institutions and organizations replace vague abstractions with specific details about specific initiatives, communications are more real, and people take note more readily. The Schuylkill River Development Corporation, who manage trails along the waterfront in Philadelphia, offer another example.

To encourage donations for trail maintenance they created signage that openly shared the total maintenance costs, average usage numbers, and presented the math to calculate a suggested individual contribution. By honestly and openly sharing the numbers, this approach communicated the stakes to each passing individual. Some people will have the means and inclination to make a financial contribution, but many won’t. However, everyone who reads the banner leaves with a tiny nudge to think about their impacts and perhaps find a way to give back to the things they value in their community, financially or otherwise.

Credit: Schuylkill River Development Corporation

Ultimately, no amount of great communication will smooth over broken promises or false invitations, so this approach is an addition to, and not a substitute for, participatory engagements that sincerely invite people to help define and make the city. As with any other relationship in our daily lives, followthrough matters. Tone and posture matter. Reimagining the civic commons means changing communications to make the city rife with opportunities for informed citizenship and open dialogue in ways big and small.

We, The People

Less than three miles from the skyscrapers of downtown, the Mander Recreation Center and Playground in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansions neighborhood is humming with programs and activity. The staff are kind and welcoming, and all of the building’s spaces are filled with kids of various ages whose smiles can barely be contained (except for the teenagers who are, of course, busy being teenagers). This is a place so positively alive with love and care that you feel it immediately upon entering.

Despite all of this, thick layers of paint make it clear that maintenance cycles have been stretched to their limits and bulky security fencing chokes the windows. Mander Rec illustrates the two intertwined roles that our commons must always play. On one hand, the places and spaces of the commons serve their communities by providing direct, tangible benefits that address real human needs. On the other, they are visible manifestations of the society that built them. In the words of Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia’s Parks Commissioner, everyone should be able to walk into a place that says “you’re worth it.”

While the utility that civic assets provide is always their most important role, American cities also need ambitious symbolic spaces and shared experiences of such high quality that they pull everyone forward, reminding us of the strength that flows from our great diversity. America loves an underdog, but more than anything Americans love to see an underdog succeed and shine.

When we think broadly about the partnerships and the many forms of capital available to us, we already have at our disposal the means to create a commons that propel us through the 21st century. “We” cannot remain an abstract notion, and it is not limited to “mayors, planners, and traffic engineers.” It’s your grandpa, 22 year old kids with laptops, that person who lives three doors down, and the cat lady at the laundromat. It’s non-profits, city employees, and small businesses. It’s “we the people.”


If you haven’t done so already, check out our film that emerged from these ideas!


Thanks to Carol Coletta for inviting us to be part of Reimagining the Civic Commons and reminding us to be pragmatic and optimistic in equal measure.