Philadelphia’s growing skyline is not the only sign of the city’s ongoing renaissance. Recent and deep investment in the public spaces that bring us together is also a sure signal of our city’s revival.
This week, Philadelphians welcome two new park projects as they complete the first phase of their development: Centennial Commons in West Fairmount Park and the Rail Park in Callowhill. With these two ribbon cuttings comes one important lesson learned: community engagement is crucial to creating a common vision for Philadelphia’s civic spaces and for our city overall.
Centennial Commons and the Rail Park are just two of several projects involved in Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative piloted in Philadelphia that seeks to revitalize civic spaces, and counter the economic and social fragmentation that are all too common in communities across the nation.
Initially launched in 2015, with support from the Knight and William Penn Foundations, and facilitated by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Reimagining the Civic Commons has supported local leaders around the development of Centennial Commons and the Rail Park, as well as the Discovery Center in Strawberry Mansion, Lovett Library and Park in Mount Airy, and Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia. Our collective goal? To connect and empower residents, change perceptions of neighborhood safety, and encourage additional investment in local businesses, while maintaining neighborhood affordability.
There are the obvious benefits to investing public spaces: clean, green and vibrant public spaces contribute to how residents feel about their city, each other — even their government. A large national survey conducted by the Center for Active Design, to be published this month, found that people living near well-designed parks with high standards of maintenance reported greater community connection, political participation and satisfaction with local government.
With its focus on neighborhoods around and beyond Center City, Reimagining the Civic Commons challenged us to engage residents a little differently to create civic spaces reflective of their respective communities. Take Parkside in West Philadelphia, where the community and partners teamed up to re-envision an underutilized alleyway and community lot near Centennial Commons. Today, the Viola Alley Connector continues to inspire new thinking around community programming and engagement, from biweekly fresh food fests to dynamic events at civic spaces around Parkside.
But there is still work to be done to support these communities in taking ownership of these spaces. In Parkside, for example, the Conservancy was a founding member of Centennial Parkside Community Development Corp. (CDC), which is now a vital partner charged with bringing investments to the neighborhood and testing new ideas, including hiring a Clean and Green Team to maintain civic spaces and a neighborhood programming manager. Meanwhile, Friends of the Rail has a new Executive Director, Kevin Dow, who will drive community engagement and realize a vision for another inclusive, connective public space in Philadelphia.
With an increase in Knight’s investment in Philadelphia last fall, we’ve been able to launch a citywide civic engagement process, to connect people to their public spaces and to each other. As a result, this fall hundreds of park, library, and recreation center volunteers and neighborhood partners will come together at a forum to share new ideas and learn best practices from each other.
Across the city we are seeing more community members exercise their civic muscles, and we invite all Philadelphians to champion the city’s civic spaces, too. Join your Park Friends Group. Volunteer at a Free Library branch. Fund-raise for your local advisory council.
We’re excited to be part of what’s unfolding and look forward to working with our partners and other leaders to involve Philadelphians in building a stronger, equitable, and more civically engaged city.
Jamie Gauthier is executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Patrick J. Morgan is the Knight Foundation’s project director in Philadelphia.