In 2015 the City of Philadelphia commenced a city-wide strategy to Reimagine the Civic Commons.
A collaboration between the City and community and not for profit organisations, this strategy has invested and delivered some US$500 million in city assets from a riverfront trail, a renovated library, an elevated park to an education and nature centre.
City funds were realised through bonds and the implementation of a ‘sugar tax’- the latter only being passed after the fourth attempt at legislating and only where the revenue was tied to the Civic Commons initiative.
While new public infrastructure has been used to enhance and revitalise neighbourhoods, equally significant has been the investment in soft infrastructure – the people. Guided by the values of promoting equity and encouraging economic growth, choosing where to invest was determined based on a data analysis of local income, crime, health risk, market value and household growth.
Hallmarks of the project design were resident driven planning, capacity building and intensive workshops moulding and contextualing the project to and for the local community. These were supported by stewardship programs providing individuals and neighbourhood groups with resources, training and tools to support the maintenance and ongoing programming of the public space.
In the words of David Gould, Deputy Director of Rebuild, City of Philadelphia, “participatory rather than transactional meetings, storytelling rather than telling were critical elements of each project".
Gould believes that city leaders need to move from “doing good to doing right” and most importantly, city leaders must remember that “projects only move at the speed of trust”.
In a world of increasing urban intensification, increased pressure and contestability of public spaces make the delivery of quality public spaces, places, domains and commons a significant urban imperative.
Urban leaders cannot afford to have public projects stall and fall because of a trust deficit. Urban leaders can no longer afford to take a top down, transactional approach to city building.
Instead urban leaders must look to new ways of collaborating, empowering and partnering with the community in decision making, designing, and delivering common places, for it is a shared ownership and shared responsibility that will create common wealth.
This article is one of a series from the 2018 Walk Bike Place Conference, New Orleans, USA.
Katherine O'Regan, Executive Director
Cities Leadership Institute