Philanthropy has played a major role in reshaping public spaces across the country, ranging from parks to plazas. Expansions and improvements to these public spaces have had a positive impact on communities and larger cities, although historically not much work has been done to investigate its effects. However, a new initiative has been launched to look at the impact of this type of philanthropy. The Knight, Kresge, JPB, and Rockefeller Foundations have joined forces to launch Reimagining the Civic Commons, which is an effort to improve libraries, plazas, trails, and parks in Memphis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Akron. The four foundations have offered $20 million, which is matched by local funds in these cities.
The initiative aims to identify underused land and buildings in these cities and to transform them into green spaces or other hubs for community participation. A key aspect of the initiative involves gathering data on the daily use of local spaces and their economic impact. In addition, the foundations hope to build a metrics on the social impact of recreational spaces that includes how improvements can build trust and affect political engagement in communities. The data will help to guide the projects launched by the initiative, and the information will provide greater insight into how philanthropy in this area can be made most effective, particularly in light of the failure of other philanthropic park projects such as Diller Island.
Measuring the Impact of Public Space Improvements in Philadelphia
The larger Reimagining the Civic Commons effort grew out of a pilot program begun in Philadelphia. There, philanthropists operated under the assumption that public spaces can foster economic development, engagement, and equity when they are implemented in an appropriate fashion. Since this idea is somewhat nebulous, data was collected over the course of three years to see what impact was created in these categories and more. Metrics were collected with the help of the think tank City Observatory and Interface Studio, a design firm. The team used maps, visual assessment, third-party data, and surveys to attempt to quantify the data. Four main goals were identified: environmental sustainability, value creation, civic engagement, and socioeconomic mixing.
Each of the project sites in Philadelphia received a baseline rating in each of the categories, which were then reassessed annually. In addition, assessments are made in the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the measurements were straightforward, such as public perception, environmental ratings, and the number of visitors. However, some of the other metrics were beyond the normal scope of urban planning. Team members are measuring voter turnout, support for government spending on public projects, and support for the politicians who champion these projects. In addition, the team is attempting to gauge trust among politicians and other community leaders and looking at levels of stewardship, such as how often people volunteer.
What makes this data collection effort so interesting is that researchers are looking not only at the new public space itself, but also at the neighborhoods that surround it. The team is looking specifically at the income and racial diversity of site visitors and the larger areas around the site. A park with diverse visitors in a predominantly homogenous neighborhood has a different impact than one used by a single demographic in a very diverse neighborhood. The team is also interested in real estate value, rent, and businesses in the area. The growth of local businesses suggests a different impact than opening a new Starbucks or Chipotle.
The Importance of Measuring the Impact of Civic Projects
Any city infrastructure project can have a wide range of consequences, and not all of them are intended. The assumption that new parks and recreational areas are universally good is questionable, particularly if they start to raise the value of real estate and price out families who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. The projects can also bring tourists to the area, which can drive up the cost of living, as restaurants and other stores become more expensive. Reimagining the Civic Commons is undertaking important work in understanding how to handle these projects in a responsible manner while taking into account the needs and desires of local communities.
The data collected through this philanthropic effort could also help to guide future public-sector investment in civic spaces. Privately funded projects are often criticized for bringing on undue donor influence, which could undermine democracy. The High Line in New York is often cited as an example of how philanthropically supported projects can actually lead to greater social and economic segregation by speeding the process of gentrification. The foundations behind Reimagining the Civic Commons, which recognized this danger before launching any projects, are dedicated to figuring out how investment in public spaces can actually reverse social and economic fragmentation.
While it is too early in the project to have enough data to point to real trends, the initiative’s approach has led to an important conversation about how this type of philanthropy is not only reshaping public spaces around the country, but also changing the larger social fabric.