Civic Commons Studio #1: Lessons for Detroit

By Ceara O’Leary

Detroit’s RCC team notes on next steps from Studio #1

A common refrain at the first Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Learning Network convening was that civic commons means more than physical improvements to each city’s “assets.” Civic commons includes the assets but also extends to the programs that strengthen our neighborhoods, the collaborative process by which we develop programs and places, and the perception of people who experience the commons. In Detroit, the RCC team is steeped in collaboration, and we welcomed an opportunity to talk more about RCC as an avenue to move beyond business as usual. The following insights emerged throughout the course of the three-day dialogue.

Civic commons can be considered a community campaign building toward a collective goal that is substantially larger than individual assets. This revelation impacts how we approach our work and speaks to sustained day-to-day engagement that strengthens resident investment in the overall effort. This also informs storytelling as we seek to diversify storytellers at the neighborhood, citywide and national levels to build a campaign.

photo credit: Meredith Edlow

At the local level, campaigning means continuing to grow our street team and also recognizing neighbors who are steadfast contributors to growing the civic commons. Next steps that emerged from the convening include an appreciation dinner for residents who volunteer their time and an intention to include community leaders in learning trips. The forthcoming ‘neighborhood home base’ on McNichols is another key campaign element, as it will increase access, visibility, and the opportunity to convene. Importantly, the entire civic commons campaign is committed to reaching goals that both benefit and build from existing traditions, stories and relationships in the community.

photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Our team also left with a commitment to equity and an acknowledgement that it is not an option to miss the mark on inclusion in the civic commons. Ideas from the convening include continuing to ensure that a diverse group of people sits at the table with the resources and that we serve the existing neighborhood while including neighbors in the process. We are moving forward on drafting principles that will guide decision-making with intention toward inclusion.

Winterfest, designed by Groundswell Design Group. photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Finally, we left the Learning Network recharged with ideas for programming the civic commons that will support both inclusion and campaign goals. Chicago’s concept of “radical hospitality” is fruitful inspiration. We are currently planning on a series of activation events, directly tapping the skills and strategies of Groundswell that we enjoyed at the convening. We are also planning to implement a postcard and event exchange similar to those shared by the Philadelphia civic commons team. Civic commons is by nature a multi-layered effort, and we seek to keep adding layers that benefit the neighborhood as we learn from our local and national partners.

Ceara O’Leary is a senior designer and project director at Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

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.