In a City of Firsts, Learning By Doing

Park champions enjoying the swings at Parkside Edge, West Fairmount Park. Image credit: Albert Yee

Philadelphia has a long history of city building through public spaces, including the first library, the first public school, and the first urban park plan. How much more could a historic city learn and innovate around public spaces?

In 2014, Fairmount Park Conservancy received an $11 million Reimagining the Civic Commons grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation. The goal of the grant was to support five already ongoing public space projects throughout Philadelphia: Centennial Commons in West Fairmount Park, Lovett Library and Park in Mt. Airy, Bartram’s Mile at Bartram’s Garden, the Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park, and the Rail Park.

As the pilot city, Philadelphia had the opportunity to learn by doing over the course of the three-year grant. We used the Civic Commons framework to help connect five projects (all at different stages) through a learning network, which allowed partners to explore new ideas, share insights and create unique cross-organizational programming around the five project sites.

This collective not only brought seven siloed nonprofit public space developers together for the first time, it forged authentic connections between communities and civic spaces across the city. For instance, Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia and Mt. Airy USA (now Mt. Airy CDC) learned about each other’s communities through their Neighborhood Exchange Boxes program, which featured a mobile booth that encouraged residents of both communities to exchange stories about their neighborhoods.

Cooking demonstrations at the Parkside Edge, West Fairmount Park. Image credit: Albert Yee

In West Philadelphia, Parkside residents led the charge on the Viola Alley Connector, a project that used creative placemaking to re-envision an underutilized alleyway within the neighborhood. Knowing that there was a community need for increased access to healthy food, residents then designed and implemented the Parkside Fresh Food Fest in collaboration with Reading Terminal Market in a vacant lot the following summer. Three years later, the Parkside Fresh Food Fest expanded and moved to one of the Civic Commons sites, Parkside Edge at Centennial Commons for the 2018 season.

In Chinatown, home of the Rail Park, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) hosted a series of community dinners with neighbors, community leaders, and business owners, bringing people of different backgrounds and viewpoints to the table to share community values, experiences, and thoughts for the future of the neighborhood. Today, the Rail Park is open and advancing new engagement strategies, events and programming to the space, including its first-ever Lunar New Year Celebration.

2019 Lunar New Year Celebration at the Rail Park. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

At the Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park, a Migrate to Discovery & Adventure event hosted by the Conservancy, Strawberry Mansion CDC, The Free Library, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, drew 200 residents into conversation with each other and within the civic spaces that connect them. Today, the Discovery Center is open and has reintroduced the magic of the reservoir — closed for nearly 50 years — to Strawberry Mansion residents and Philadelphians near and far.

Strawberry Mansion Youth Photo Camp explores the Discovery Center. Image credit: Albert Yee.

At Lovett Library and Park, the Free Library and Mt. Airy USA are pushing the physical boundaries of a library from the inside-outside. Activities in the library and park are bringing people together and creating long-lasting community connection. Work here is reimagining how a library and park can program differently, measure impact, and be deeply connected to residents.

Bartram’s Garden is testing ideas around the role of public space that are bigger than the space itself, exploring ways to make the historic garden a destination for civic engagement. It is working to create a space that puts residents at the center of planning efforts to redevelop their neighborhood and waterfront.

Bartram’s Mile trail at Bartram’s Garden. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

These efforts are now at scale as Civic Commons helped serve as inspiration for the City of Philadelphia’s Rebuild initiative, which plans to invest $500 million in capital improvement of parks, recreation centers and libraries. In addition, in 2016 Reimagining the Civic Commons expanded to four other cities, Detroit, Akron, Chicago and Memphis.

As part of the national Civic Commons learning network we have had the opportunity to share some of our most unique and successful programs. Our nationally recognized park stewardship program, a collaborative effort between Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Fairmount Park Conservancy and 130 volunteer park friend groups, grows by the day as we demonstrate the power of public space, sustained engagement and strong local ownership across groups in Philadelphia.

Park Friend Groups attend an annual skill-building conference. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

We have learned plenty of lessons over the course of this three-year journey that help pave the way for other cities:

  1. Small-scale projects can be big gamechangers: At the start of Reimagining the Civic Commons, we embarked on early-action projects to test out small-scale ideas for connecting the Civic Commons sites. Starting out small allowed partners to figure out what works–and what doesn’t–for the communities the sites serve.
  2. Activating and sustaining stewardship: A neighborhood park can serve multiple goals including beautification and creating a sense of place. In Parkside, partners are exploring if the improvement of a park can also create jobs and nurture forms of wealth building and stewardship within the local neighborhood.
  3. Collaborate to co-create: None of the original five Civic Commons sites would be where they are today without the collaborations of the collective partners and efforts to engage the communities involved. The Reimagining the Civic Commons network in Philadelphia has since grown from seven siloed partners to a collaboration of more than 20 grassroots community leaders and organizations, include two Community Development Corporations.
  4. Philadelphia is remaking history: The Civic Commons network is amplifying and connecting the work of on-the-ground partners. Through shared lessons and real-time experiments Philadelphia’s public spaces are experiencing a resurgence and people locally and nationally are paying attention.
Young volunteers at Cobbs Creek Park on Love Your Park Day. Image courtesy of Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Reimagining the Civic Commons pushed the Conservancy to question our assumptions about how public spaces are planned, developed, programmed and maintained. It inspired Philadelphia Parks & Recreation to think about engagement in a new way, shifting from transactional interactions with residents to more transformational community impact. The department is institutionalizing lessons learned from the Civic Commons across a citywide public space system.

Bringing different communities together comes with challenges. It is difficult and slow-going. But along this journey we have demonstrated the power of public spaces. They can bring people together. They can connect and identify community leaders. They can be a platform for deeper connections between people and their city inviting residents to participate in building the kind of neighborhoods where they want to live.

Play at the Parkside Edge, West Fairmount Park. Image credit: Albert Yee.

Co-authored by Kathryn Ott Lovell, Commissioner, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and Jennifer Quinn Mahar, Senior Director, Fairmount Park Conservancy.


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. The initiative’s pilot in Philadelphia was supported by Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation.