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The bedrock of American democracy is the communities that bring together diverse voices and people. As we seek to address growing concerns over a divided America and strive to build bridges between rich and poor, rural and urban, races and ethnicities and differing political beliefs, a key question is how we can bring people together in a way that allows us to make the most of our diversity. 

Here’s an idea you won’t hear much about but that could make a real difference: let’s all meet up in a public space.

It is an essential time for local communities to invest in places and spaces that bring us – all of us – together. A neighborhood public library, park or recreation are often the places where strangers come together, where we learn about each other, and where neighbors and local decision-makers meet to create a better community.

Recent research by the think tank City Observatory demonstrates that over the past several decades, a number of trends—social, economic, political, technological—have dramatically decreased how often, where and when people interact with those who are unlike us. We now spend less time socializing in community settings and are less likely to regularly connect with people whose experiences are different from our own. In our schools, parks, shopping centers and other public places, we’re increasingly disconnected.

A group of foundations—including The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation—recently announced a major commitment to invest in the “civic commons”—community assets like parks, recreation centers, trails and libraries—to create more places where people of all backgrounds and views can exchange ideas, learn about each other and address problems. 

Our initiative, Reimagining the Civic Commons, is a five-year, five-city undertaking. It includes three cities where Knight Foundation’s founders, John S. and James L. Knight, once owned newspapers and where the foundation regularly invests—Philadelphia, Detroit, and Akron, Ohio—along with Chicago and Memphis, Tenn. 

By transforming these community-owned physical spaces, we hope to prove that thoughtfully designed, well maintained public places can help bring people together across seemingly intractable economic, social and cultural divides. If we succeed, we believe we will produce more cohesive communities where residents can move forward together.

Philadelphia was the first site and pilot city. They have focused on completing and connecting five new neighborhood spaces—a riverfront bike and pedestrian trail, a renovated public library and park space, an elevated park, a nature center and outdoor youth education center, and new recreation improvements for a major city park that had fallen into disuse. The effort has galvanized the city, inspiring Mayor Jim Kenney to announce a $500 million local investment to transform public spaces. 

Detroit and Akron launched their own efforts in 2016, and although much of their work is in the planning stages, there are already signs of success. Detroit’s project seeks to create “20-minute neighborhoods,”—places where people get most of their day-to-day needs from local merchants and service providers within a 20-minute walk.

Akron’s project focuses on a three-mile section of downtown that includes three neighborhoods diverse in history and population: the downtown that fills every day with thousands of white-collar workers but empties after work, a diverse middle-class neighborhood where property values are slowly declining, and a major city park that has suffered from decades of neglect and disinvestment. 

Chicago’s project will help create the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons (CAIC), a project that connects, redevelops and programs four sites on the city’s South Side into centers for industrial arts production, skills training, and artisan studios, while the Memphis project is focused on four blocks of property in the heart of downtown within a larger area called the Promenade, deeded in perpetuity for public use by the city’s founders.

In our communities, we see our civic commons as the spaces where people create opportunities to connect through shared experience.  

We also see such spaces as an opportunity for learning. We want to elevate the conversation of neighborhood places, sharing lessons and best practices across cities and communities. All five cities that are part of the initiative will spend the next five years sharing insights with each other, and we’re confident this exchange will help to strengthen the work happening locally.  

By revitalizing neighborhood public spaces our intention is to bring people together from diverse backgrounds—and strengthen our democracy in the process.

Katy Locker (Detroit), Kyle Kutchief (Akron, Ohio) and Patrick Morgan (Philadelphia) are Program Directors for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  

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