Measuring what matters in the commons

Stony Island Summer Pop Up on the North Lot of the Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago, 2017. Photo: David C. Sampson.

You see it in the news every day. Nearly every trend line shows that the U.S. is a country in the grips of increased polarization, segregation, social isolation and economic inequality. Trust in free fall.

There is an urgent need to reverse these trends. And one way to start is through reconnecting people, not online, but in place through our shared civic assets.

What would a city look like that was putting every single one of its assets to work to connect people of all backgrounds? Can we recast our public places to cultivate trust and counter the trends of social and economic fragmentation?

These are animating questions for Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration teams in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia who are working closely with people in local communities to foster these social outcomes:

  • Civic Engagement: building a sense of community that brings people of all backgrounds back into public life as stewards and advocates shaping their city’s future.
  • Socioeconomic Mixing: creating places where everyone belongs and that generate opportunities for shared experience among people of all incomes and backgrounds.
  • Environmental Sustainability: Increasing access to nature and creating environmentally friendly places easily reached by walking, biking or transit.
  • Value Creation: Encouraging additional investments in neighborhoods to foster local businesses and change the perception of safety, while maintaining neighborhood affordability.

How will we know these assets, when reimagined, are indeed bringing us back together?

If we are serious about the outcomes, then we must have more than good intentions. We must also measure to understand if we are having impact.

And yet when you look at standard performance metrics for our shared civic assets, the parks and libraries that could be ground zero for fostering empathy and trust, you generally find people measuring operations. You see data points like “number of acres mowed” or “number of books in circulation.” There is little, if any, measurement of potential social impact.

While these operating figures may be useful to managers and their departments, these metrics give no indication that these assets have the potential to address the challenges we face as a nation. If you indeed “manage what you measure,” then we clearly need a new measurement system for our civic commons.

A new system that measures what matters.

In 2016, as the Reimagining the Civic Commons publicly launched we initiated a collaboration with learning partners City Observatory and Interface Studio to begin to design a measurement system that could start to capture the social impacts of the civic commons.

Reimagining the Civic Commons presents a new measurement system for capturing the impact of civic assets.

We aren’t the first to reach the conclusion that measuring public places matter. So in developing this new measurement system, we looked to the work of urban thought leaders like Jan Gehl and William Whyte for insights, as well as practitioners actively collecting metrics to inform their management like University City District’s The Porch at 30th Street Station. We also referred to existing survey tools from sources such as the General Social Survey and Pew Research Center.

Building on this work that came before us, we have designed a system to analyze the impacts of Reimagining the Civic Commons on the sites and in the neighborhoods that surround them. We are tracking progress on a number of metrics that roll up to our social outcomes over time. We believe this data-driven approach offers a new method for determining the multi-faceted value of reinvesting in civic assets. It will provide evidence of the societal benefits of a connected set of public places — benefits that matter.

With the data we gather, we aim to:
 
1. Learn how a healthy civic commons supports more resilient, less fragmented cities and neighborhoods
 
2. Demonstrate how investments in connected sets of civic assets impact engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development
 
3. Build the rationale for further investment in revitalized and connected public places

The measurement framework is designed to demonstrate progress toward our four main goals. Within each goal are three to four signals: real-world indicators that relate to the project’s overarching objectives. For example, the signals for the civic engagement goal are public life, stewardship and advocacy, and trust. That means if more people engage in public life, become stewards of or advocates for the civic commons, and express trust in others, that indicates that civic engagement is on the rise.

Each signal is associated with one or more metrics designed to measure change on everything from diversity of visitors to voting participation to perceptions of a neighborhood. To understand changes in safety, for example, we will measure three metrics: perception of neighborhood safety, female site visitorship and neighborhood crime rate. In total, we are gathering data on 65 metrics.

The data collection process includes tools to understand impacts at the site, neighborhood and city level.

The data collection process takes us into the public places and the neighborhoods nearby to understand how visitors are interacting with each place — and how the place is supporting a more engaged, equitable, sustainable and economically vibrant community. Alongside survey tools and observation maps, we also use publicly available data and in-depth analyses to evaluate the changes over time.

Baseline data is just the start.

After conducting data collection and analysis over the past 18 months, the baseline data is in. The baseline metrics reports for Akron, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis reveal the existing conditions in each city at the beginning of the three-year initiative. Teams will go back out this spring and summer to collect interim measures, which will be reported against baseline next year. Then a full suite of measurement will happen again in 2019 so that we can begin to assess change over time.

Sample page from the Memphis Baseline Metrics Report.

The measurement framework offers the full list of metrics and the sources for each data point, and the baseline reports offer details on how the metrics are analyzed and the insights they can deliver. In addition, the appendices of each report share the methodology employed for data collection.

Metrics for your own work.

In the coming months we will release an open-source toolkit for measuring the impact of improvements to civic assets — an easy-to-use system that can be used to measure and improve the performance of civic assets in your community on outcomes that matter.

Lock 2 ambassadors of Akron Civic Commons.

We believe that our shared public assets, when revitalized and connected, have the power to influence positive social outcomes and serve as a solution to the challenges of our time. And we’ve set out to prove just how investments in the civic commons can move the needle towards progress. Stay tuned as we report back on what works, and how other communities can adopt these measures to create more equitable, engaged, environmentally sustainable and economically healthy places.

If you would like more information about Reimagining the Civic Commons’ metrics system, please contact Bridget Marquis, Director, Civic Commons Learning Network.

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.