9 Ways to Build Better Cities Through Public Places: Part 1

How working differently magnifies the impacts of investments in public places

Photo credit: Shane Bevel Photography

Improvements in infrastructure and programming in public spaces are easy to see: upgraded playgrounds, renovated libraries, and food, music and activities that draw diverse people into a space. Civic asset managers often concentrate their improvement efforts on these physical changes, usually creating a better individual public space. But what if you could transform public spaces across siloes, to much bigger impact?

Much of the work of Reimagining the Civic Commons is visible in these on-the-ground changes, but the secret sauce of our five demonstration cities are the core improvements that you can’t see — fundamental changes in the way that each city’s civic asset managers, non-profit staff and community leaders are working together to design, operate and manage public places.

Through our work in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia, we’ve identified and compiled nine principles for working differently for cross-sector teams reimagining public places in any city in the country. The first four of these principles, and examples of how they work in our five demonstration cities and other cities doing innovative public space work are illuminated here:

Photo credit: Memphis River Parks Partnership

Principle #1 Design, operate and manage civic assets as a portfolio focused on outcomes

Parks, libraries, trails, community centers — each of these assets tends to be managed and operated separately, rather than being viewed as one important piece in a connected set of assets that are being leveraged for the biggest economic, environmental and social impacts. When assets are viewed as part of a portfolio with key community outcomes in mind, greater collaboration across organizational siloes (public, private and non-profit) becomes more successful. And, cities can begin to coordinate investment, programming and operational changes that create a much bigger positive impact.

The Akron Civic Commons project is a great example of this principle at work. Three distinct neighborhoods (Summit Lake, Park East and downtown Akron), each with very different populations and challenges, are literally connected across two miles of multi-use path, the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. This connection allows for investments in one area designed to draw in more people and more value creation to be leveraged across the trail, as visitors move from one part of the project to the next.

This connection and holistic approach to the project also creates a greater potential for socioeconomic mixing — the beneficial act of bringing together people from diverse social and economic backgrounds — by connecting Akron’s downtown business workers to the working-class, diverse neighbors of Park East and Summit Lake, reducing the economic and social divides that plague American cities.

“At a time when Americans are losing trust in each other and in civic institutions, we’ve found in our work that the simple acts of bringing residents across neighborhoods together and working side by side on Akron’s shared spaces offers a good first step at rebuilding trust.” — Dan Rice, President & CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition
Rendering by Spackman Mossop and Michaels

Principle #2 Recognize intrinsic value

Reimagining the Civic Commons — and organizations and governments working on quality public space — are right to focus on under-resourced neighborhoods, places that have been neglected for years or even decades. While working in these neighborhoods, it’s key to remember that despite disinvestment, they are rich in terms of physical space, community organizations and networks, resident expertise and leadership, and history.

Working side by side with community leaders and residents to make the most of these existing assets can create public spaces and community connections that are stronger — realizing the inherent potential of historically disadvantaged communities.

Detroit’s Reimagining the Civic Commons team is working in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, a residential neighborhood that for years had struggled with hundreds of abandoned homes and vacant lots. Transforming Fitzgerald has brought a new, 2.5 acre park (Ella Fitzgerald Park) that was achieved not by city decree, but by grassroots activists working together with city planning staff. Robust community engagement and a collaborative planning process included not just community meetings, meeting people where they were, like providing project information while painting temporary prototype bike lanes throughout Fitzgerald. At every step in the process, Detroit’s project team invited residents of all ages to contribute, from training and employing local youth as ambassadors to asking residents to help design and name the park.

“Tapping into Fitzgerald’s tremendous human and physical potential has allowed us to achieve much more than we thought we ever could. By taking the time to understand the challenges faced by residents and developing solutions together, we are not just building a park and greenway — we’re surfacing and elevating existing and new community leaders who will have an impact on this city for decades to come.” — Alexa Bush, Design Director, City of Detroit Planning and Development Department
Photo credit: Shane Bevel Photography

Principle #3 Bring people of all backgrounds back into public life, reconnecting communities to civic assets where trust can be formed

For decades, the trend lines have been disturbing: Americans are increasingly polarized and segregated by income into neighborhoods of lower and upper income residents. At a time when Americans need more than ever to bridge our divides, we are becoming less and less likely to interact with people that are different than ourselves, reducing the opportunity to learn about people who think and live differently.

Our parks, libraries, trails and community centers can become the places where people of all backgrounds interact and learn from each other — but only if they are intentionally designed and managed to do so. For civic assets to draw in diverse visitors, they must be designed in an attractive and high quality way, and civic asset managers must prioritize outreach to diverse communities.

Tulsa’s Gathering Place — recently named America’s best new attraction by USA Today — puts vibrancy and inclusivity at the core of its mission in a city long challenged by a history of geographic segregation and distrust. A park championed by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Gathering Place was designed through an inclusive planning process that generated thousands of comments and ideas from Tulsa residents of all backgrounds.

The result is a diversity of features and programming designed to meet the full diversity of interests and needs of residents: an adventure playground, kayak and canoe rentals, sports courts, a water park, space for picnicking and relaxing, early childhood education programs, free dance and theater performances and music concerts spanning a wide range of genres.

In September 2018, the Gathering Place opened, and in just one month 300,000 people visited the park.

“The core mission of Gathering Place has been clear from the very beginning — to welcome all Tulsan’s to a vibrant and inclusive space.With the collective vision and collaboration of George Kaiser Family Foundation, donors, park leadership, city officials and the community, we’ve created a Park that excites, educates and engages guests from every background. Gathering Place has quickly become a world-class destination, serving as a catalyst for transformation to engage and strengthen our city.” — Jeff Stava, Chief Operating Officer of the Tulsa Community Foundation
Photo credit: Katelyn Freil

Principle #4 Shift the behavior of citizens from consumers to producers in order to cultivate stewards and champions of the assets

Public sector staff innovating in the civic asset space are learning that there is tremendous benefit when you move from traditional public engagement with residents to co-creation with residents. Co-creation involves deep listening and sometimes takes longer, but the benefit is that people who simply used public spaces grow into stewards and advocates of those shared assets.

Akron’s Civic Commons project work in the Summit Lake neighborhood is a clear example of this principle at work. In Summit Lake — a neighborhood that for decades had been cut off physically and socially from the rest of the city — residents had often been told that there were plans for improvement for their neighborhood, but they were often disappointed when few or none of the plans were implemented. When the Akron Civic Commons team began work there, trust was low.

The Akron Civic Commons team deliberately included neighbors in all levels of its work, even employing several neighbors on the team itself. They used community meetings, surveys and face-to-face dialogue to collect information about what the neighbors wanted at the Lake, and to build authentic relationships. It took a while before any plans were drawn up or improvements commenced, and when they did, they were low-cost, quickly built prototypes of what neighbors had indicated they wanted: barbecue grills, seating and shade, benches and nature play activities along the shore of Summit Lake.

This tangible reflection of plans that neighbors helped develop and the relationships built between the Akron Civic Commons and the neighborhood helped reduce distrust and created true project advocates like Starleen Saulsberry, who wrote about overcoming her initial skepticism of the project to becoming an active participant in the Akron Beacon Journal last August.

“Three years ago, neighborhood residents were invited to sit in on focus group meetings organized by the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition….My first thought was: ‘Here we go. A bunch of professionals coming in to tell us what they are going to do. They don’t care about Summit Lake and low-income people’s wants or needs. The past three years have made me a believer in civic engagement and my own power to affect change. I eventually started working at Summit Metro Parks’ Summit Lake Nature Center as a program assistant. I began writing for the Around the Lake Community Newsletter, coaching Girls on the Run and after conversations with Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority staff members, I was hired as a SPARK Parent Partner for the Summit Lake area. I also got involved with the Students With A Goal, a program which provides mentoring opportunities for young people.” — Star Saulsberry, active resident of Summit Lake

This is the first part of a two-part series on how public spaces are being transformed through nine key principles for working differently. Read part 2 here.


Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.