Want better cities? Create a better commons.
A conversation with Lynn Ross, Spirit for Change Consulting
Lynn Ross leads Knight Foundation’s work supporting Reimagining the Civic Commons and is the founder and principal of Spirit for Change Consulting. Working nationally and across sectors with organizations, Lynn is on a mission to create and sustain equitable places, practices and policies.
Q: Civic leaders are facing tough choices and issues every day. Why should the leadership in cities prioritize investments in parks, libraries, trails and community centers?
A: Our civic assets are the places that bring us together and they are what turns a city into a community. We’ve all been to places where leaders aren’t using their civic commons to build and sustain community. These aren’t places that are enjoyable. I argue to elected leaders and others that our civic commons are not an “extra” for cities. That they are, in fact, essential.
In many cases, people don’t understand this because they think too narrowly about the benefits of the civic commons. The library for instance, is more than just a place to go to read or research. Those functions are necessary, of course, but you only have to look around a little to see our libraries can do so much more. In Philadelphia, the Lovett Memorial Library has been transformed into a place that is truly designed to serve the surrounding neighborhood. You can also look at what’s going on in Memphis at the Cossitt Library, where an historic space encompasses all the traditional library functions, but also a coworking space, a café, a performing arts center that will host innovative programming, all in order to be intentionally welcoming to diverse Memphians. These projects are indicative of how a civic commons serves multiple purposes.
So, when people are making a case for better parks, libraries and community centers, they need to take a step back and think about all the benefits that these assets can bring the community. When you match up all that our civic commons can do for us, I think it starts to address a lot of the challenges cities face. Especially if we can rethink how they are being used, how they are funded and how they are operated.
Q: One principle of reimagining the Civic Commons is to promote socioeconomic mixing in public places — creating places that are not just open to all, but that are welcoming to all. What are the benefits of this approach?
A: The title of our initiative kind of says a lot: Reimagining the Civic Commons. The Commons is meant to be space for each of us, to feel welcome, to have experiences, and to just be ourselves.
We have gotten in the habit of being fearful of anyone or anything that seems different, and of finding fear in things that are not warranted. This behavior is born of many factors but at the core of this behavior is fear. We also have to be honest about the role of racism and bigotry here too. You can see this in the epidemic of people calling the police when black people are just going about their lives — doing regular things like driving down the street, having a barbecue at the park or moving into a new home.
It’s really critical for community building, and for our democracy, that we stop “othering.” Instead we all need to start engaging more in public life and spending time with a greater diversity (in all its forms) of people in public spaces. While you are in a public space with other people, it’s possible you will have a shared experience with someone, and that can start to lower the fear factor. You’ll start to see people in public space as your neighbor, or as someone you see regularly at the park or at the library. If we can lower that fear through time spent together, then maybe we can start to get at some of these other root issues, like racism.
Q: Based on the Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration teams’ efforts to date, what seems promising for fostering equitable and inclusive places?
A: One thing I’ve been impressed with among all of the Reimagining the Civic Commons teams is the daylighting of local leadership. In all five cities, community members are also members of the core civic commons team, and we have lots of other local leaders who are engaging in particular pieces of the work. People are coming forward through our work with real ideas, real actions towards progress, and they have a real desire to co-create the future of their commons.
This is a lesson that all of us should be borrowing — the promise of local leadership. Sometimes I’ll hear folks use phrases like “give local stakeholders a voice.” I think that frames the work incorrectly. You don’t “give” someone a voice, but you can pass the mic and intentionally create opportunities to amplify new or previously underrepresented voices. We all need to go into a project with a learning mentality and with an openness to the local leadership and local ideas that already exist in communities. We don’t need to recreate them.
Q: You’re an urban planner by trade. What do you see as the role of professionals in your field for advancing the principles and outcomes of Reimagining the Civic Commons?
A: Reimagining the Civic Commons has four discrete outcomes for our projects: civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability and value creation. These aren’t new — there’s a long history that ties urban planning to these kinds of outcomes, and in fact, these four goals could just as easily be adopted as the tenets of good, effective urban planning. The role of planners in advancing this work is to do their jobs with an equity lens.
The roots of our profession are actually very closely tied to this idea of connecting public spaces and the public realm. You only need look back at the parks and open spaces of Daniel Burnham in his early 20th century plan for Chicago or the 1730 Oglethorpe plan for the city of Savannah, Georgia, which was designed to support social equity, although it didn’t quite live up to those ideals for numerous reasons. The underlying idea of these and other past movements was that residents should have democratic access to public space. We can now build on that idea — using an equity lens — to create a civic commons for the 21st century that truly welcomes and celebrates each member of the community.
Q: Community engagement is often viewed as a “check the box” moment in public planning processes. How is Reimagining the Civic Commons offering a different approach?
A: The most important thing that we’re doing is making civic engagement a top priority. We’re putting the residents first. Too many projects do not prioritize engagement, they don’t make it a necessary part of good process. Reimagining the Civic Commons puts civic engagement upfront as one of our core goals, and this engagement is both how we do the work and an outcome of the work. And to me that has been transformative.
Sometimes good civic engagement makes a process take longer and cost more, but I think the end result is that much richer, because you’ve tapped the expertise and creativity all throughout the community.
The bottom line is, you can pay now, or you can pay later. I believe doing the civic engagement right is ultimately going to be more effective than doing what happens so often today, which is to go back when a plan or a project didn’t work and start over. We should make the upfront investments in civic engagement because there are significant social and economic costs when we get it wrong.
Q: With the work in the demonstration cities heading into its third year, what have you learned from supporting, observing and being a part of their efforts?
A: First, the importance of creating a culture of learning at multiple levels. We’ve got learning that’s happening within each city. We’ve got learning that’s happening across the cities. We even have learning that’s happening among the national funders of this initiative. Reimagining the Civic Commons has helped all of us develop an openness to new ideas and new ways of working, and we are sharing what we are learning with each other. I am now bringing this idea of creating a culture of learning from the start of a project into other work in my portfolio.
Second, I’ve learned about the power of authentic engagement. From all of the city teams, we’ve heard that there was a point in their projects where they said to themselves, wait, we’ve got to just stop and listen to what folks are saying. We’ve got to really listen. This is something of a lost art in public engagement, because we get so goal-oriented that we are often listening to reach consensus and that we forget to listen first for understanding. Authentic engagement and listening are the foundation for real and lasting partnerships.