Civic Infrastructure for Recovery

Investments in the public realm that boost equity and resiliency


Memphis’ Fourth Bluff Park. Image courtesy of Memphis River Parks Partnership.

As public life in American communities begins to open, many community leaders, elected officials and advocates are pushing for increased investments in the shared public spaces that proved so valuable during the pandemic. Here is a round-up of some progress being made (and how that progress is being funded) to ensure that civic infrastructure plays a vital part in individual and community recovery.

Memphis: public spaces and buildings drive equity and connection

In January, Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis announced the city’s intention to take advantage of favorable financial circumstances to raise $200M through bonds that would be directly funneled into the city’s neighborhoods. At the beginning of July, Accelerate Memphis was launched — an investment into on-the-ground improvements in the city that include projects that spur the local economy, safety and street improvements, access to broadband and $75M worth of improvements and upgrades to the city’s parks, trails, pools, paths, golf courses and community centers. There’s even investment in a “state-of-the-art” library with a genealogy center and connected senior housing.

Renderings of the renovation plan for the Cossitt Library in Downtown Memphis. Renderings courtesy of Groundswell and Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Announcing the program, Mayor Strickland said, “Through this transformative, strategic approach, we are making an unprecedented 200-million-dollar investment in catalytic, community projects in every neighborhood, in every city council district, across our city.”

Midwest cities leverage federal dollars for civic infrastructure

In March, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) and the President signed the bill into law, providing communities with a second round of stimulus funding. While much of the funding went directly to individuals and families severely impacted by COVID-19 and the economic downturn, communities also received funding for local, regional and state governments. In Akron, a portion of these funds are being invested in recreational programs to prevent gun violence among young people and $30M is going towards parks and public facilities.

Akron’s Summit Lake. Image credit: Tim Fitzwater.

“Public space is a catalyst for economic development,” says Akron Deputy Mayor James Hardy. “It is a catalyst for racial and social equity.”

Detroit — a city hit hard by COVID-19 — received over $800M in federal stimulus funds and plans new investments in Detroiters and their neighborhoods. This includes grants to block clubs and neighborhood associations that work on improvements to their local areas; neighborhood signage; new parks, walking paths, the Joe Louis Greenway, streetscapes and neighborhood beautification and activation.

A new playscape at Ella Fitzgerald Park in Detroit. Image credit: Greg Siemasz for Earthscape

City of Detroit Design Director Alexa Bush says city staff are building upon previous years of work with local neighborhood leaders and residents on public space projects. “It’s really about building on a sense of community but centering that around public space that might not even have existed before,” she says.

The State of Michigan makes historic investments

This month, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a historic $150 million investment in community parks and recreation facilities, part of the state’s ARPA funds. The recently announced investment comes after the Governor announced an additional $250 million of ARPA funds for state parks, trails and open spaces last month.

Whitmer pointed to the ways in which these investments drive multiple benefits for local residents, their families and the economy. “These two new investment programs, totaling $400 million, mark a once-in-a-generation chance to improve quality of life for our residents, support local economies and bring people back to Michigan as the state continues its recovery from the effects of the pandemic,” she said.

New York bolsters its budget for parks and open spaces

Citing the use of New York’s parks, open spaces, trails and gardens, the City Council increased the city’s fiscal year parks and recreation budget by more than $100M. The increased budget will include paying for more than 200 parks rangers as well as supporting the “Play Fair” campaign, a coalition of more than 300 organizations dedicated to maintaining natural areas and open spaces. Support for parks and natural areas was a key component of the city’s mayoral campaign this spring, with the primary winner and likely next NYC Mayor Eric Adams pledging to ensure that everyone can live 15 minutes from a park and promising to allocate 1 percent of the city’s entire budget to parks and park programs. As Brooklyn Borough President, Adams was an advocate for increased parks budgets.

Image credit: “NYC — Midtown: Bryant Park and New York Public Library” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Libraries bridging the digital divide

As schools went virtual during the pandemic, many low-income and BIPOC students struggled to find reliable Wi-Fi to attend classes and access learning resources, exacerbating the digital divide. Libraries looking to expand broadband access — through hotspots, modems, routers and other broadband connections — now have access to more than through a grant program established by ARPA. The Emergency Connectivity Fund helps schools and libraries with the technology they need to ensure students and patrons continue to be able to access the internet for low or no cost. The program also funds devices like laptops and tablets in addition to broadband technologies. The window to apply opened on June 29 and closes by August 13.

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