The time for the commons is now

New cities are joining Reimagining the Civic Commons. We couldn’t think of a better time for them to do so.


A stroll through Memphis’ River Garden. Image courtesy of Memphis River Parks Partnership, 2019.

“Amidst the safer-at-home measures during this pandemic, we have seen public spaces — our parks, open spaces and trails — sustaining people in ways we only contemplated a few months ago.” — Dana Bourland, Vice President of Environment, The JPB Foundation.

In the wake of COVID-19, public spaces are becoming critical havens for people across the country. As we continue to manage living in an era of physical distancing, our parks, plazas, trails, greenways, sidewalks and even our streets have provided fresh air, exercise, reduced stress and much-needed, safe interaction with neighbors. More and more, city leaders around the country are recognizing that what brings us together — a robust and accessible civic commons — is the key to us all emerging stronger together from COVID-19.

A flexible space for programming, Parkside Edge, invites residents into Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.
Credit: Albert Yee, 2018.

That’s why we are thrilled that innovative civic teams from Lexington, Macon, Miami, Minneapolis and San José will join Reimagining the Civic Commons, forging new ways to design, manage and operate public spaces for the benefit of their communities. And as our country journeys tenuously into a new normal, these investments in our open green spaces, parks, trails and other public spaces may be among the most important investments we can make.

Right now, perhaps more than ever before, we need investment in our civic infrastructure that supports communities across the country.

Over the last 50 years, Americans have become segregated by income and belief more than any time in modern history, and we trust each other less. Health researchers have identified social isolation as a key cause of illness, even death. And in too many cities, a lack of high-quality public spaces in neighborhoods that have experienced decades of disinvestment leave too many residents with no places to safely exercise or see nature burst into spring. All this needs to change. High quality public spaces — well-designed, staffed and maintained — must be delivered to every neighborhood, in every city, as a fundamental human right.

A leisurely ride on a San José bike trail. Image courtesy of SPUR.

As five new cities join us, the original five demonstration cities of Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia will continue their leading-edge public space work for the next three years, thanks to a $10 million in new philanthropic investment from our funders, The JPB, Knight, Kresge and William Penn foundations.

We have seen transformative results over the last four years in these cities.

- In Akron, Ohio investments in three civic asset areas along a major trail line are connecting previously isolated neighborhoods, and bolstering civic engagement and new levels of civic trust. For instance, a formerly neglected lake in one of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods has become a gathering place to experience nature. Summit Lake is now a point of pride for the community. Ninety-four percent of visitors believe the previously isolated neighborhood now has a bright future.

Roller skating in Akron’s Cascade Plaza. Image credit: Tim Fitzwater, 2018.

- In Chicago, investments in unique civic spaces like the Stony Island Arts Bank Campus and the formerly vacant St. Laurence School led by Rebuild Foundation are sparking a South Side neighborhood revitalization. Through a new partnership model, more than 650 free programs were offered, drawing over 26,000 people to these Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood spaces.

- In Detroit, a brand-new community park and greenway aligned with investment in a neighborhood commercial corridor, including converting an empty storefront into Neighborhood HomeBase, a welcoming community hub. This has resulted in green infrastructure jobs for neighbors, sparked the opening of local businesses in formerly vacant spaces, and inspired new hope for a better future among residents of a long-disinvested neighborhood.

Memphis’ River Garden, a reimagined park on the Mississippi River. Image courtesy of Memphis River Parks Partnership, 2019.

- Memphis has embarked on transforming a set of all but abandoned spaces — a branch library, public parks and a disconnected trail — along the Mississippi River into an active, revitalized waterfront. Following the removal of Confederate monuments, the team reconsidered the design, program, operations and staffing of these sites to ensure the spaces are welcoming to all. Resulting in average visitorship to River Garden nearly doubling prior to the pandemic, with visitors coming from more than 40 zip codes.

- Philadelphia’s work, as the pilot city for this groundbreaking initiative, resulted in a new riverfront bike and pedestrian trail, a renovated public library and park space, an elevated park, a nature and youth education center and neighborhood-oriented gathering spaces in five different neighborhoods of the city. It also created a robust, collaborative network of public space practitioners and helped set the stage for $500 million of new civic asset funding through the Rebuild initiative.

Parkside Fresh Food Fest in Philadelphia’s Parkside Edge. Image credit: Albert Yee, 2018.

The expansion into five new cities presents more possibilities for public spaces that support authentic neighborhood participation, and for city leaders to nurture more support and investment in civic assets, leading to a more engaged and vibrant community. The opportunities to grow community leaders’ and advocates’ capacity to innovate in public space that deliver beneficial outcomes for everyone feel endless.

Greater Northern Greenway Overlook in North Minneapolis. Rendering by Ten x Ten Studios, 2019.

If there’s something this pandemic has taught all of us, it’s that we can find strength in our communities through the public spaces we share. We will need high quality parks, libraries, trails and community centers to successfully recover from COVID-19 and respond to related crises like climate change. As Sam Gill, senior vice president and chief program officer of the Knight Foundation, says, “These spaces will be key to supporting socially connected, healthy communities.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Read the full press release here.

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.