Fostering cross-sector connections while Reimagining the Civic Commons

blogimage_CivicCommonsIn a report released last summer, the Municipal Art Society of New York noted that “there is a fundamental disconnection between the physical assets that most cities own and manage and what a cross section of their population needs and wants their city to provide.” The report, Reimagining the Civic Commons, produced with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, lays out a framework for how cities can overcome this disconnect and create a network of public places that encourage collaboration and integration.

That network, or civic commons, includes amenities such as parks, community centers, post offices, health clinics, hospitals, markets, libraries, and schools, all of which serve the collective needs of neighborhoods and benefit the city at large. “A quick analysis of any city’s key civic assets will expose gaps and disconnections across often competing systems and will identify missed opportunities for collaboration,” details the report, highlighting how municipal government often struggles to break out of silos within government, let alone partner with external parties like local businesses and non-profits.

In a pilot project for the initiative that’s also called Reimagining the Civic Commons, the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation are working to better connect civic assets in Philadelphia through five model projects. Projects include a riverfront bike and pedestrian trail, a renovated public library, an elevated park, an outdoor youth education center, and the revisioning of West Fairmount Park. “Philadelphia intends to be the first comprehensive demonstration of how a connected set of civic assets — a civic commons — can yield increased prosperity for cities and neighborhoods,” explained Patrick J. Morgan of the Knight Foundation in a blog post celebrating the one year anniversary of the announcement of the project.

One year in, the project is proving that Philadelphia’s civic commons relies on support from across sectors. For example, to lead the projects on the ground, the initiative relies on local and national non-profits, business improvement districts, and City agencies. By tackling these not as individual projects, but within a larger framework, the initiative encourages thinking more broadly about the role public spaces can play in a city. This can be achieved only through “deep collaboration in and out of City government, robust and dynamic public-private partnerships, and a willingness to embrace civic innovation and innovators,” according to Morgan.

In order to truly leverage civic assets for the community, the initial report details, there must be both a top-down and bottom-up approach. While leadership from the public, private, and non-profit sectors is key to linking these spaces and created shared assets to improve a community, user perspective from local communities is also important. As we highlight in our most recent Research to Practice piece, Engaging citizens to improve outcomes of public-private partnerships in transportation, public involvement in a partnerships ensures that partners are receiving a “localized user perspective,” which can contribute to the creation of a successful project that fits the community’s needs. While this research focuses primarily on P3s in transportation, the findings are relevant to any collaboration where success depends on citizen use.

And with all these stakeholders and entities coming together, a clear governance structure is needed for projects with this level of complexity. “As with all public-private partnerships, flexible governance approaches that respect the constraints of the public sector and capitalize on the flexibility of other partners can be developed,” says the report. “Governments can afford to adopt a ‘lighter touch’ with their oversight as long as lines of mutual accountability, and measures of success are made clear.” For more information on how to successfully create a formal or informal organizational system for project management, see the tactic from our Intersector Toolkit Establish a Governance Structure. For additional resources that walk you through organizational structures, partnering agreements, MOUs, and bylaws, see p. 27 of our Toolkit.