Creative Communities

Foundations invest $11 million in public space projects

Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Source: Philadelphia Tribune

There’s a major effort underway to breathe new life into some of Philadelphia’s public spaces.

Officials from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation announced Monday they are investing $11 million in an initiative led by Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy. The Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative will explore whether reinventing libraries, parks, trails, plazas and community centers, and connecting these public places as a network of civic assets will help cities like Philadelphia become more successful.

Through the Fairmount Park Conservancy — a nonprofit that champions Philadelphia’s parks — the initiative will support five projects throughout the city.

The projects include The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park — an educational collaboration which would reinvent a 40 acre reservoir on the edge of the Strawberry Mansion community, with an urban bird sanctuary and leadership development center; the Bartram’s Mile trail project — a trail and greenway project by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and Schuylkill River Development Corporation along the lower Schuylkill River that will transform the industrial brownfields into an urban park as part of the region’s 750-mile trail network; and the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Centennial Commons — the transformation of an underutilized section of West Fairmount Park into a new play space for the Parkside community.

The initiative will also support the renovation and expansion of the Lovett Memorial Library and Park by the Free Library of Philadelphia and Mt. Airy USA and the Center City District’s development of the Reading Viaduct Rail Park. The project will turn a former rail line that runs from Broad Street southeast across 13th and 12th streets to Callowhill Street into a vibrant green park.

The Knight Foundation is committing $5.4 million to the initiative. The William Penn Foundation is investing $5.5 million, adding to its previous support of $7 million.

“We see Philadelphia as a perfect place to do the first demonstration around re-imagining the civic commons — this notion of getting the neighborhoods’ civic assets to act in concert to add new value to their neighborhoods,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “I think the fact that these particular assets are on the borders between neighborhoods that are generally of different incomes is a particularly exciting way to think about democratizing these assets and creating places where people can use them as equals.”

In addition to receiving funds to complete the building of each of these public places, the collective will collaborate on new activities and programming, share knowledge and resources, and measure and document the impact of the projects on the community.

“Not only will we be making physical improvements in these neighborhoods and in these park spaces but we are going to study what the impacts are: How does it enhance community life, how does the use of the parks change overtime?” said Shawn McCaney, creative communities program director of the William Penn Foundation. “Hopefully these will be lessons that can be shared throughout Philadelphia and throughout the country.

“Philadelphia is really going to be in the national spotlight as a center of thinking about these issues.”

The new initiative builds on the William Penn Foundation’s Great Public Spaces grant-making program that focuses on enhancing public spaces, parks and trails.

“We are honored to play this exciting role in the future of public place development in Philadelphia,” said Kathryn Otto Lovell, executive director of Fairmount Park Conservancy. “This opportunity perfectly aligns with our mission to work as a collaborative partner to lead and support efforts that enhance our public spaces, and to leverage these assets as catalysts for urban revitalization and civic engagement.”

Officials said the investment will capitalize on Philadelphia’s strengths including: a large pool of new talent, rebounding neighborhoods and a growing group of people who want to live and work in the city.

“Philadelphia has been attracting national and international attention recently, and much of that recognition is due to extraordinary civic spaces,” said Mayor Michael A. Nutter. “The city’s realization of this vision would not be possible without foundation support and this Reimagining the Civic Commons announcement confirms the value of our investments and rightly places the Fairmount Park Conservancy in a leadership role to help move this plan forward.”

Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, said the organization is proud to be a part of this new initiative to develop and connect civic spaces in and near Center City.

“The transformation of the Reading Viaduct will foster new investment in the surrounding neighborhood and prompt the redevelopment of several major vacant parcels around the deteriorated Viaduct,” Levy said. “The new park will serve families, workers, students and residents from across the city, as well as visitors to Philadelphia.”

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