Reimagining the Civic Commons believes in the power of our public spaces to bring people together across divides, rebuild trust and yield more resilient communities. But we recognize that to convince others to invest in this new approach to civic assets takes more than a theory of change; it takes evidence.
That’s why when we launched nationally in 2016, we initiated a collaboration with learning partners City Observatory and Interface Studio to develop a measurement system that could begin to capture the social impacts of the civic commons.
We focused on four key outcomes that we believe reimagined civic assets are uniquely suited to deliver:
- 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.
As our demonstration cities pursue strategies to reimagine public spaces and how communities design, manage and operate public assets, we employed this new metrics system to track progress on these four outcomes.
As Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact says: “Great public spaces connect people to places and to each other, helping to build the kind of informed and engaged communities that are vital to a healthy democracy. To achieve this, it’s critical that we collect data on what public spaces can actually do.”
Today, we released the first set of interim data for four cities (Akron, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis). While this only captures the first 18 months of their efforts (and much work is still to be done), impacts of investments in better public places are starting to be realized. The reports released today are interim and do not include updated data across all metrics, yet a few key data points stand out.
A shift in public perception. In Detroit, people are beginning to notice improvements in the Fitzgerald neighborhood where the civic commons sites are located. In fact, public perceptions of the civic commons sites and the surrounding neighborhood increased 28 percentage points from the baseline period. Ella Fitzgerald Park is attracting people from other Detroit neighborhoods, and is even finding evening events are drawing a crowd. Given the role stigma and reputation can play in the future of a neighborhood, this is a powerful sign for its future.
At the same time, interest in homes in and near where Detroit’s civic commons project is located increased, with internet home search activity up 48 percent in the project’s zip code, compared with a 23 percent increase across all of Wayne County over the same time period.*
More visitors, and a greater sense of safety. In Memphis, there are more visitors to its civic commons’ sites, with the average number of hourly visitors to the recently transformed Mississippi River Park nearly doubling since 2017.
Memphis also saw a 30 percentage point increase in the proportion of visitors who say they feel safe in the neighborhood surrounding the civic commons projects at night.
A positive view of the future. A sizeable majority of visitors to Akron’s three, connected project sites believe that nearby neighborhoods have a bright future. 82 percent of downtown respondents, 87 percent of Park East respondents and 94 percent of Summit Lake respondents believe that surrounding areas will improve some or a lot over the next few years.
While all of the data is interim and provides a snapshot of changes over a relatively short period of time, it points to the opportunity of investments in civic assets to fairly quickly change the perception of those assets and of nearby neighborhoods. The metrics above seem to be first movers among the dozens of metrics being tracked.
“The holy grail for funders has been to understand the impact of our investments, and these metrics get us much closer,” says Carol Coletta, senior fellow with The Kresge Foundation on loan to the Memphis River Parks Partnership as president and CEO. “It helps us to know how to invest, and it helps public space managers to know how to design, program and manage. It’s an exciting advancement in making great places.”
Our ambition is to provide opportunities for this kind of measurement and analysis to more than just the Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration cities — we want all of you working in cities across the country to have access as well. So we’ve made our tools open source for civic asset managers and community leaders to implement on their own by providing free, downloadable tools like observation maps and intercept surveys. These tools start to measure the impact of investments in public space with core metrics like frequency of visits, acts of stewardship or advocacy, trust in others, perception of surrounding neighborhoods, and the income, racial and ethnic diversity of visitors. We will continue to develop and release measurement toolkits for social impact that can be used by those investing and managing public spaces all across the country.
“From experience we know that even the best intentions sometimes have consequences we never expected,” says Dana Bourland, Vice President at The JPB Foundation. “Measuring social impact in partnership with residents helps us understand if our investments are leading to the kind of change desired by communities — reimagined spaces that support local culture and belonging.”
Since the beginning of this initiative, we’ve believed that the benefits of investing in the civic commons were multifaceted and far-reaching. Today, with a framework for measuring and interim reports showing just the beginning of those benefits, we are establishing the business case for more and better investments in public places.
We are eager to share the evidence we are compiling and to provide the tools to tell your own story of impact and encourage more cities to join us in reimagining the civic commons.
*Data provided by Redfin Real Estate.