Discovery Center Groundbreaking

Community Spotlights

One year later: The Civic Commons

by Julie Hancher on February 9, 2016

2015 was an exciting year for Fairmount Park Conservancy! We embarked on new, nationally prominent projects like the Community Development Investments program through ArtPlace America, held dozens of fun outdoor member events and logged thousands of hours with our amazing volunteers cleaning and greening Philadelphia parks.

One pioneering experiment began last year as one of the most exciting announcements in Conservancy history. Launched in early 2015, Reimagining the Civic Commons is an innovative collaboration that will explore whether reinventing and reconnecting public spaces as a network of civic assets will enrich cities.

Can cities attract and keep talented workers, advance economic opportunities, encourage residents to become more engaged in their communities and begin to level the playing field between more affluent communities and those in need due to shared public resources? The William Penn Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are investing in $11 million in the Civic Commons initiative to explore these questions.

Here are a few lessons since we learned last year…

7 Lessons from the Civic Commons in 2015

1. We are stronger together than we are apart. The Fairmount Park Conservancy has convened the city’s leading nonprofit public space operators into a collaborative network, a new “Civic Commons Collective.” Over the course of three years, the Collective will demonstrate the ways that civic assets can be elevated and connected as an integrated, sustainable system and how they can be designed and developed to foster talent, opportunity and engagement. The Collective will foster a more collaborative environment among Philadelphia’s nonprofit network while repurposing, and repositioning the city’s existing urban infrastructure into new amenities for the city and its neighborhoods.

2. Underutilized assets are spaces primed for unique collaboration and opportunity. A public launch event in December 2015 previewed the future of the Discovery Center, opening 40 acres of East Fairmount Park closed to the public for decades. Philadelphia Outward Bound School and Audubon Pennsylvania are collaborating on this bird sanctuary and youth leadership center that will serve over 10,000 students in Philadelphia.

3. We are filling in the gaps: Breaking ground in November, Bartram’s Mile will expand the Schuylkill River Trail to Southwest Philadelphia. The bike and pedestrian trail will connect Center City to Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical garden in the country, and the residents of Southwest Philly to Center City. Everyone should have access to a trail, regardless of what their background or income!

4. Take time to reflect and consider what you might not know. Reimagining the Civic Commons has changed the way we think. We are so caught up in projects we don’t take the time to stop and ask critical questions. We think we know who is using a park space, but what about who isn’t there? Why aren’t they visiting this park? How do we measure the success of a physical improvement or program?

5. The only constant is change. There have been tremendous leadership transitions in the last few months. We have a new Mayoral administration, a new Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, a new Knight Foundation Program Director in Philadelphia and soon will have a new leader at the Conservancy. Change can be unsettling but it’s also an opportunity to reboot and recharge.

6. The eyeline (not the skyline) is what’s critical. Seeing small moments of change guides citizens in their ‘civicness.’ Subtle, everyday experiences impact how we experience our city. The five Civic Commons projects are fantastic investments in five distinct neighborhoods. But we will also be considering the ‘small things’ – what is the user experience in walking to these sites? How can we bring programming from these centers into the neighborhoods?

7. We are on the cusp of greatness as a city. Philadelphia has transformed over the past few years but we have much further to go as a city. We are still the most economically segregated of the major cities in the United States.

So what’s next for the Civic Commons?

Over the next year we will have three groundbreakings, conduct placemaking and programming experiments with international researchers, launch a storytelling initiative to share the experiences of the Commons neighborhoods and will be participating in a national Civic Commons model. Stay tuned!