December 7, 2018

Five emerging civic engagement practices

Borrow these ideas from community leaders across the country in your own neighborhoods.

Students and volunteers build human-scaled nests in River Garden. Image courtesy of The Fourth Bluff

Reimagining the Civic Commons defines civic engagement as more than just a “check the box” activity required as part of a project. For us, true civic engagement builds a sense of community and brings people of all backgrounds into public life. We don’t just want to hear people’s opinion about public places, we want them to participate as stewards and advocates in shaping their community’s future. This kind of civic engagement should be central to how communities reinvent and manage civic assets as public places that serve everyone—because that’s the way you build deep and long-lasting support for these places in the first place.

In our work in five cities across the country, we’ve identified five emerging and promising practices for effective engagement. These practices shine a light on how civic engagement can be both an input and an outcome of investments in our civic commons—and perhaps most importantly, they can be used by anyone, in any city, to create positive change.

Make it a regular habit.

“Coffee, Tea & Chat generates the fuel for positive community engagement in our community. That fuel comes from an understanding of what it means to be a friend and a neighbor.” — Gaylord Minett Jr., Outreach Coordinator, Rebuild Foundation

Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation hosts Coffee, Tea & Chat, a get-together for neighbors to meet and discuss ways to make their community better. A weekly potluck with an open-door policy, Coffee, Tea & Chat welcomes people with different backgrounds to discuss various topics. Keeping it relaxed, with no formal agenda, creates a space where neighbors can learn about each other and share ideas. With community betterment at the heart of the conversation and a relaxed environment, people are moved to be solutions-focused and creative. Unlike traditional public community meetings, Coffee, Tea & Chat is always full of positive vibes.

Coffee, Tea & Chat is a weekly ritual that connects neighbors—simple yet powerful in an era when nearly a third of Americans never interact with their neighbors at all.

Amplify the stewards who already exist.

“By providing residents and homegrown leaders with resources and funding to program their own initiatives, we are enriching the sustainability of the Civic Commons. Building local capacities through project development and implementation facilitates ownership and promotes the social connections that will keep the neighborhood thriving. Our project team is much more dynamic with residents!” — Caitlin Murphy, Live6 Alliance

Want to advance stewardship? A first step may be to lift up, celebrate and provide resources to those who are already doing the work. In Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, that meant amplifying community block club leaders and other residents who have been caring for the neighborhood for years. Through collaboration among Detroit Collaborative Design Center, City of Detroit’s Planning and Development and Live6, a local community development corporation, efforts to identify and support Fitzgerald residents have been foundational to encouraging stewardship of recently revitalized public places.

The hula-hoop troupe gets people moving at Market on the Ave. in Detroit. Photo by Bree Gant

The team has helped elevate existing stewards in a variety of ways. It worked with resident Michael Dones to design and fabricate solar-powered rainwater collection and pump system for Mo-Flo Community Garden, which Michael manages on a formerly vacant lot. It supports Activity Days in the Park, which offers regular park programming for kids and families and is championed by resident Darnetta Banks, who is president of the Prairie Street Block Club. And student designers from University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture are collaborating with resident and San Juan Block Club president Stephanie Harbin on transforming a vacant lot into a neighborhood hub with a pavilion, a walking path and a designated area for volleyball and other games. As these resident-led sites and programs come to life, more and more neighborhood stewards are emerging, like Bernadette King and her hula-hoop troupe, who are becoming regulars at Ella Fitzgerald Park.

A lesson learned from all of this work: Building stewardship starts by connecting and resourcing local champions.

Leverage the universal desire to leave a mark.

“I think [this project] gives [students] real design experience and innovation challenges. They’ve learned how to revise and modify prototypes and they’re also helping out and contributing to the community.” — Virginia Cole, engineering teacher, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy

“It’s amazing, it’s very breathtaking. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event.” — Riley Comstock, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy student whose nest was chosen as one to be built in River Garden

In Memphis last summer, hundreds of volunteers turned up to paint the parking lot at Tom Lee Park to transform it into RiverPlay—a pop-up park along the Mississippi River that drew thousands. This fall, dozens of students from three local public schools worked with architects and engineers to design, prototype and build human-scaled nests for the newly opened River Garden, a vibrant new space for connection, relaxation and play. The results of involving community members in active design-build activities are tangible and immediate, which encourages those volunteers to return for the next project. Memphis has found that co-creation with community members is an engagement strategy that allows each participant to feel the satisfaction of leaving a mark on something bigger than themselves, fostering a sense of pride and ownership in our shared public spaces.

GPD Group’s adopt-a-trail quarterly cleanup day. Image courtesy of Akron Civic Commons.

Why adopt-a-highway when you can adopt-a-trail?

“As we look at how our public spaces can be maintained over the coming years, we will have to increasingly look to those living and working in the neighborhoods for help.” — Dan Rice, President & CEO, Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition

Ten corporations in Akron have signed up to each adopt a half-mile section of the Towpath Trail between downtown Akron and Summit Lake. These corporations engage their employees in various adopt-a-trail activities, such as quarterly cleanup days for their section of the trail. There was so much corporate interest in the program that more corporations signed up to participate than there are trail segments along this three mile section, and current contracts for adopt-a-trail activities are signed through 2021. Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition’s only cost is related to the management of the corporation contracts and coordinating the dates of trail days, making this a sustainable option for maintaining the Towpath Trail. This resource-light engagement practice involves corporate partners and their employees, who become long-term champions of shared public spaces.

Connect stewards to a network.

“The Public Space Summit was truly an unprecedented opportunity to bring park, library, and recreation center stewards together for the first time ever. But we’re even more excited to see how the attendees take their new ideas and partnerships from the day back to their neighborhood public spaces.” — Jamie Gauthier, Executive Director, Fairmount Park Conservancy

No one wants to feel like they are the only one. That’s why Philadelphia developed the Parks Friends Network—a collective of 115 neighborhood-based volunteer groups throughout Philadelphia that care for and activate many of the city’s parks and public areas. The Network is supported by the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation and Fairmount Park Conservancy, who provide staffing, guidance, and funding for local parks, while neighbors provide the volunteer hours and on-the-ground organizing. The volunteers host citywide events like Love Your Park Week, quarterly dinner meetings, skill building conferences, and annual parties that bring together park stewards from all backgrounds, races, demographics, and parts of the city.

In October, Philadelphia expanded this network across organizational silos with the inaugural Public Space Summit, co-hosted by the City of Philadelphia, Fairmount Park Conservancy, Philadelphia Parks Alliance, and Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The event drew together hundreds of park, library, and recreation center stewards from across the city for a day of learning and exchange with each other, and included guests from Toronto and Akron.

Philadelphia’s experiences shows there is power in numbers, and that creating a supportive network around stewards amplifies their work and confirms that they are part of a bigger movement.

This essay first appeared on Reimagining the Civic Commons on Medium.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a national initiative that seeks to counter economic and social fragmentation in our cities by revitalizing and connecting public spaces such as parks, plazas, trails, and libraries to bring together people from different backgrounds. The initiative is supported by The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and local partners. Launched nationally in 2016, it is the first comprehensive demonstration of how a connected set of civic assets—a civic commons—can bring together people of all backgrounds and yield increased and more equitably shared prosperity for cities and neighborhoods.