In late 2014, the Conservancy was selected by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation as convener for Reimagining the Civic Commons, a collaborative initiative that began in Philadelphia as a way to connect the city’s leading public space operators and five planned new civic spaces (the Reading Viaduct, Bartram’s Mile, Lovett Library and Park, Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park and our own Centennial Commons in the Centennial District of West Fairmount Park) and has, as of fall 2016, gone national. The initiative included an Innovation Fund that has allowed us to test new strategies for public space interventions and build connections among communities surrounding the five Philadelphia Civic Commons sites.


Philadelphia is an ideal choice because of its booming millennial population, rapidly changing neighborhoods, widespread civic space innovation and entrepreneurship, a vast array of urban infrastructure available to repurpose, and the presence of a committed and influential local funder – the William Penn Foundation – with significant investments and parallel interests in understanding how the civic realm can be better leveraged to promote greater social and economic integration, retain young residents, and foster social and economic opportunities.

As the partnership between these funders developed, the Fairmount Park Conservancy was put forward by the William Penn Foundation as the local organization most suitable to lead a pilot effort that would draw the city’s leading nonprofit public space operators into a collaborative network, a new “Civic Commons Collective”. In December 2014, the Conservancy was award a three-year $5,442,500 grant from the Knight Foundation to convene and invest in the Civic Commons Collective in Philadelphia.

Over the course of three years, the Collective demonstrated, through a series of place-based investments at five sites in Philadelphia, 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 encouraged a more collaborative environment among Philadelphia’s nonprofit network while improving, repurposing, and repositioning the city’s existing urban infrastructure to provide new amenities that generated a competitive advantage for the city and its neighborhoods. For a one-page PDF about the project, click here.

As the lead organization, the Conservancy invested $5 million of the grant in five capital projects, which included:

The Philadelphia Outward Bound School and The National Audubon Society are joining forces to reactive a century-old abandoned water reservoir in East Fairmount Park. The project will provide environmental education and adventure programs that inspire self-discovery, foster personal achievement, and build community across Philadelphia.

Center City District and Friends of the Rail Park  repurposed a portion of an abandoned rail line as an elevated linear park in a changing, multi-ethnic community.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation transformed this former industrial waterfront, adjacent to Bartram’s Garden, into a greenway that will reconnect the oldest botanical garden in the U.S. to Center City, while reconnecting an isolated neighborhood back to its historic waterfront.

The Free Library of Philadelphia and Mt Airy U.S.A converted this library and adjoining unused, open space into a new community center.

Fairmount Park Conservancy will create three recreational zones and bring much-needed amenities to a 12-acre edge of West Fairmount Park to transform this space into an inviting and vibrant park for residents of the adjoining neighborhood.

These projects have received matching support from the William Penn Foundation totaling more than $20 million in local investment in projects that promise to redefine Philadelphia’s civic landscape.

The Conservancy’s Centennial Park project was also supported by an additional $5,530,000 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Fairmount Park Conservancy, in partnership with the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, announced this $11 million investment in Philadelphia’s open space in early March 2015 with city leadership and model project partners represented.

See the transformations of 5 Civic Commons sites

About Reimagining the Civic Commons Partners

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

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The William Penn Foundation, founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through efforts that increase educational opportunities for children from low-income families, ensure a sustainable environment, foster creativity that enhances civic life, and advance philanthropy in the Philadelphia region. In partnership with others, the Foundation works to advance opportunity, ensure sustainability, and enable effective solutions. Since inception, the Foundation has made nearly 10,000 grants totaling over $1.6 billion. The Foundation’s assets exceed $2.3 billion as of Nov. 30, 2014.

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For questions or feedback, please contact our Chief Development Officer, Meg Holscher.