This month, Reimagining the Civic Commons releases a new set of tools for measuring the social impact of public places. These open-source tools — available for download here — provide methods for civic asset managers and community members to understand the performance of our parks, libraries, trails and community centers on key social outcomes. In this article, City of Detroit Design Director and landscape architect Alexa Bush describes how measuring the impact of reimagined public places has provided transformational benefits across the Detroit Civic Commons project.
In Detroit, our Civic Commons is at the heart of a comprehensive neighborhood reinvestment initiative centered in Fitzgerald, a residential and commercial neighborhood located about 9 miles northwest of downtown. In Fitzgerald, we are stabilizing and strengthening the neighborhood by transforming publicly owned vacant land and buildings into community assets. These revitalization strategies are helping create a model for other communities across the city — and can potentially offer lessons for communities across the country facing similar disinvestment.
However, as we embark on an ambitious new model for creating healthy communities and a vibrant civic commons, understanding what works is critical. In other words, in order to develop a model for inclusive redevelopment, we need to track and understand the impacts of our investments.
To do so, we’ve used the Reimagining the Civic Commons metrics and data collection process developed in partnership with Interface Studio and City Observatory. The metrics and process has been a huge asset to our team, allowing us to gather real-time feedback on civic space investment and community outcomes. (Editor’s note: download measurement tools for your own use here.) We started with a baseline collection of data about who uses our public spaces, and how they use them; a process that is as much a measurement exercise as it is a unique opportunity to foster community engagement and build trust. We have recruited, trained and hired residents to be our principal field researchers and data collectors, which has yielded a number of benefits. In addition to the valuable information gleaned from the data itself, the data collection process with residents has improved our work and advanced civic engagement through increasing transparency, building trust and growing the capacity of our neighborhood leaders.
Here are a few lessons we’ve learned from the data collection and metrics work so far:
Generating a new model — and the evidence to back it up
In Fitzgerald, our work includes investments into the commercial corridor adjacent to the neighborhood, streetscape investments and rehabilitating vacant homes. This work is not about restoring the neighborhood to a past state, but building towards a new future that is more accessible, walkable and centered around new community spaces like parks and greenways. Rather than work parcel by parcel, we are tackling this work at scale, activating over 400 publicly-owned parcels of residential and commercial property over a short period of time, to enhance civic life in a Detroit neighborhood far from downtown.
For us, this is where the measurement is critical. There are not many proven examples of this type of reinvestment that are focused on increasing civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, and the social factors that improve quality of life and bolster community pride. Gathering data about our work, and also learning from our peer cities, is crucial to refining our investments and improving our success at these outcomes. As practitioners, and as citizens, this is where the courage is necessary: if we’re serious about our commitment to the idea of inclusive development, we must be rigorous about the outcomes and the measurement system to determine them.
Tracking and measuring matters not only for our work in Fitzgerald, but for citywide policy. This strategy of layering investment across vacant land and buildings to create civic assets, strengthen neighborhood commercial nodes and housing, is being expanded across nine other geographies in the city through Detroit’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund. We need data to know if our work is succeeding, to better make the case for future investment. Are our new public spaces inclusive? Who is using these places, and what impact are the spaces having? Are investments creating the desired outcomes?
Trust between people is fundamental to healthy neighborhoods, and increasing trust is one of the fundamental goals of Reimagining the Civic Commons. Our team sees the process of data collection as another opportunity to increase outreach and build greater transparency as part of our efforts to build trust. Data can seem abstract, wonky, and distant from the immediate needs of community; often it is not clear how the data will be used or who will use it. Because of this, our Civic Commons team has attempted to share as much as possible about our work. Explaining the evaluation of our outcomes through Civic Commons provides an opportunity to talk about the larger goals of the effort and bring something that can seem abstract to life. Many residents share our project values, and these conversations about data and our goals increase on-the-ground support for the work.
More than just sharing the results of the data collection, we set out to gain trust by involving residents directly in it. We recruited and trained residents to collect data and act as our field researchers. While we hoped to yield better results, what we hadn’t anticipated was residents’ investment in the process turned them into advocates for the metrics and outcomes. Hearing residents quote data points and speak about “our” survey work at meetings and with visitors has reinforced our commitment to embed the community in the process.
Access to better data
We thought that hiring residents to collect data would improve the quality of feedback, since we know trust in local government and in outsiders is low across many of our communities. We hypothesized that more honesty would be possible in conversations between neighbors who live down the block from one another, as opposed to conversations with student interns or city officials. It is a very different relationship when community members are deepening their understanding of their own neighborhood in dialogue with a set of partners, rather than to being “studied” by those from afar. In addition, we think residents collecting data has enabled us to collect that data faster, with fewer return visits and greater participation from those surveyed.
Building capacity and civic engagement
The data collection process included training for resident field researchers, which provided an opportunity for neighborhood leaders to grow skills and get work experience nearby in a city where transportation is a major barrier to employment. Resident involvement has also empowered many of these community leaders to understand challenges facing their neighborhood in new ways: several residents were surprised by the number of people they counted biking; gained early insight about who uses (and doesn’t use) the park in ways that are shaping design and programming considerations; or noticed differences in the gender balance of people using public space at different times of day. These insights came through the process of observation and seem more perceptive and generative of possible solutions than might come reading the same results from a report.
Many of our resident surveyors conveyed that the survey outreach helped them connect with residents they didn’t know, or reconnect with others with whom they had lost touch. These interactions directly support the type of mixing and civic engagement outcomes we want.
Shaping the conversation about neighborhood change, investment and displacement
Embedding residents in the data collection process and sharing the results of the work enable our team to shape the conversation about neighborhood change in a new way, creating a set of common and shared facts about what is happening in the neighborhood, rather than just impressions and anecdotes. This helps us inform community conversations about neighborhood change, which can cause fear. And rightly so, as large investments leading to change in a neighborhood where there has not been major investments for decades is scary. Much of the conversation about neighborhood investment, both locally and nationally, has been focused on investment and “gentrification” or for clarity, investment and the potential for displacement. Having access to the data about the neighborhood, both quantitative (what is the median household price?) and qualitative (what is the perception of the direction the neighborhood is heading?) has helped us to frame many of these conversations using a set of shared facts, which lead to shared solutions rather than just shared fears. What we’re actually seeing on the ground can provide a counterpoint to the loudest voice or the most emotional argument.
Ultimately, our goal is to involve the community in the major decisions that shape how investment takes place in the neighborhood in ways that equip residents to make these choices. Measuring impact with residents at our side has helped us pivot from fear to defining the concrete problems, challenges and potential solutions that include sharing the benefits of investment and change with the community. We hope the lessons we’ve learned in Fitzgerald over the past year and a half, including our approach to measuring impact, will create more engaged, equitable and thriving neighborhoods across Detroit — and even across the country.
The measurement framework, toolkit and methodology were developed in partnership with Interface Studio, an urban planning and design firm, and City Observatory, a think tank devoted to data-driven analysis of cities and the policies that shape them.