In his 2018 book “The Divided City,” the urban scholar Alan Mallach wrote, “America’s once industrial and now postindustrial cities appear to be on a trajectory to a future in which they become more and more polarized places where bustling, glittering enclaves of prosperity are ringed by declining or largely abandoned areas, and where millions are relegated to lives of poverty and hopelessness.” The American city—which seemed bound for devastation in the 1960s and 1970s and revival in the 2000s—is now on a path toward greater socioeconomic division. And for all the talk of wildly rising costs and metastasizing luxury condos in cities like New York and San Francisco, there are far more places, such as Detroit’s Fitzgerald, Akron’s Summit Lake and Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion, that were once stable middleclass neighborhoods but have long been sliding toward disinvestment, neglect and isolation.
The public sector has struggled to halt this slide and connect residents of underresourced neighborhoods to opportunities in thriving areas nearby. It’s an incredibly challenging task, given all the factors at play: economic forces, a history of racial discrimination, poor transit connections, housing inequality, educational shortcomings and a lack of quality public gathering spaces, to name a few. But four foundations have come together to launch an important experiment in breaking down some of these barriers. What would happen, they asked, if a small group of cities received funding to transform a few public spaces each into places where different groups of people could mingle, where investment inequities were rectified, where environmental stewardship and sustainable transit connections were a priority, and where local residents could claim a degree of ownership? If each city were left to its own devices, how would it structure its projects, in terms of leadership, site selection, community engagement, redevelopment strategies and goals? And how would those decisions affect the outcomes?
Reimagining the Civic Commons is an attempt to answer those questions. This three-year national initiative was launched in 2016 with the announcement of a $40 million investment in public spaces in four cities: Detroit; Memphis, Tennessee; Akron, Ohio; and Chicago. The four foundations—the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation—invested half of the total, with matching funds from local sources. (In a fifth city, Philadelphia, a pilot program that started in 2015 was supported by Knight and the William Penn Foundation.)
Most of the cities are now more than two-thirds of the way through their Civic Commons grant periods, and while much of the work remains to be done, their projects have taken shape in concrete and meaningful ways. The disparate approaches chosen by the five cities, and the mix of successes and challenges they’ve encountered, show clearly that there’s no simple right or wrong answer to the question of how to create a better civic commons. Instead, they offer different lessons for further efforts, by cities and the partners that support them, to create a richer, fairer, more sustainable and more integrated urban landscape in the future.