For decades, the “Philadelphia Story” was about steady economic decline, gentrification, and stark differences—rich vs. poor, black and brown vs. white— all common problems in cities across the US. Refusing to accept these disparities as inevitable, three years ago local leaders formed the “Reimagining the Civic Commons” initiative, as Jay Walljasper reported for YES! Magazine.
The focus of this community experiment was civic engagement, helping residents create new community centers and parks and making the community more inviting for everybody, not only its newer, wealthier residents. Based on this successful effort Philadelphia launched an expansion called “The Rebuild” with $500 million dollars dedicated to reinvigorating the city’s parks, libraries, playgrounds, and recreation centers.
Young people and immigrants from other nations have moved to Philadelphia in droves, realizing they can enjoy the same kind of urban amenities as New York, Washington D.C., or Boston. “We have one of the highest infusions of millennials coming here, but also some of the highest rates of poverty and economic segregation,” Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell says. Philadelphia’s comeback has been limited to certain parts of town, yet the city continues to rewrite the all-too-common story of gentrification, which divides and fragments the community, pushing lower-income people away.
Engaging the whole community is the heart of civic commons work. It’s the unmined gold in our cities—a grassroots, ground-up way of working to reflect what all the people want. You don’t just invest in the places, but in the people. This takes the idea of engagement to a new level—the city and the community agree on the unique needs of these places where people come together across their differences. “Studies show how better public spaces improve crime and economic development,” adds Lovell, the parks commissioner. “When you make a place more inviting, it helps out local businesses, it creates healthier communities, it changes the way people relate to one other.”
Philadelphia suggests a number of lessons for other cities seeking similar success. First, experiment with the community—showing the community that things are actually happening. Second, identify tomorrow’s leaders, who can help inspire others to join and get involved. And third, make sure community involvement is strong by supporting relationships across generational, economic and racial differences.
The idea is not doing something for the community, it’s with the community. No one walks away when the last brick is laid. They own it, and they are the people who will protect and steward these projects going forward. Never underestimate the power of civic engagement.
Source: Jay Walljasper, “Philadelphia’s Alternative to Gentrification Spreads Opportunity to All Corners,” YES! Magazine, Jun 13, 2017, http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/philadelphias-alternative-to-gentrification-spreads-opportunity-to-all-corners-20170613.
Student Researcher: Malcolm Pinson (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)