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PennPraxis Summit Brings Focus to Civic Infrastructure

PennPraxis Summit Brings Focus to Civic Infrastructure

The redevelopment of American cities over the last few decades has been a boon to urban real estate developers, homeowners, restaurants, bars, cultural organizations and urban universities. But the explosive growth has often been uneven, exacerbating sharp racial and economic divisions in gentrifying neighborhoods, and providing new privileges to well-off residents while failing to improve material conditions for many in the most deprived areas. 

City leaders have tried to craft policies that direct their growth more in more equitable ways. But those policies are often outmuscled by market forces, which have largely set the terms of the urban renaissance. 

Still, the growth of the national economy has put many cities on more stable footing. Lately, many have begun to look to the resources they do control—parks, recreation centers, libraries, vacant land and other public spaces—to create the types of equitable outcomes the private market doesn’t deliver. 

PennPraxis recently capped off several years of research on these issues, led by senior fellow Randall Mason, who is also an associate professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign, with a white paper called Civic Infrastructure: Sustaining and Sharing the Value of Parks, Libraries, and Other Public Assets. From June 14-16, PennPraxis hosted over 100 scholars, planners, designers, and government officials for a three-day Civic Infrastructure Summit at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. In the report and the summit (which were preceded by an initial panel discussion and corresponding white paper last spring), the group promotes a multi-scalar framework for thinking about public investments at the level of site, system, and policy. 

“Public space projects are part of a larger ‘civic infrastructure’ made up of hard and soft elements, including physical buildings, natural places, and park elements, as well as the leadership and organizations to run things, funding to drive investment, traditions attached to places, and more,” PennPraxis Senior Researcher Elizabeth Greenspan and Mason write in the report. “Understanding public spaces as part of this complex system helps us think past the initial moments of expenditure and design, and focus attention on the long term, including the difficult work of managing and maintaining the sites themselves.”

Learning to See

Keynote addresses, scheduled for opening night on June 14, were given by Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, Institute Professor at Arizona State University in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and Damon Rich, a partner at the urban design, planning, and civic arts practice Hector. 

Jackson focused on bringing “constructive disruption” to the practice of creative placemaking—urging communities to think about equity not just in the types of infrastructure investments they make, but in how they evaluate the success of their projects. 

“Helping people to divest themselves from narrow interpretations of what artists and designers are capable of doing, and helping them see that communities that people think of as bereft or vacuous in fact have a culture that may not be completely legible, but is nonetheless rich and robust and worthy of attention and lifting up,” Jackson said. “Learning to see is almost a precondition for any way of doing this work well. Can you imagine artists and culture bearers contributing in ways beyond the making of widgets or the production of entertainment?”  

“It is this invitation, particularly with an equity lens, to pause and question the biases inherent in how we do evaluation and accountability that might actually be getting in the way of the ultimate goal of more equitable communities and greater opportunity,” she added. “Are there things and ways in which we hold ourselves accountable that don't make sense and in fact militate against what we're after?”

Damon Rich talked about the process of building engagement around the planning of riverfront park spaces in Newark and the redesign of Mifflin Square Parkin South Philadelphia. Civic spaces need to places “where stories of struggle and stories of building power are sustained,” Rich said.

“I think our only hope for confronting these kinds of challenges is to really think through these questions of civic infrastructure,” he said. “How are we bringing people together? Who's paying for the time when one community organization is organizing with other organizations? In the end, unless we can throw parties where we have everyone on the dancefloor that we need, then we run the risk of our infrastructure being much less than civic.”

Building Connection

Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, gave the welcome address on the second day of the Summit on June 15. The panels that followed included three focused discussions on Site, Systems, and Policies. 

“The role of parks, recreation centers and libraries as gathering spaces, as places for positive connections and as vehicles to build trust and restore faith in each other as humans cannot be understated,” Ott Lovell said. “We live in a country and a state and a city that stands divided. By all accounts we stand divided. It’s the idea of investing in public space and civic assets as a way to build that connection, to build that trust back between each other, as humans, to really rediscover that humanity and that connection to each other. We cannot understate how there is such incredible potential in that idea.” 

Sheila Foster, a professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University, set the stage for the first panel around the theme that “Governance is key.” Foster began the discussion by describing various models of governance for public sites. In any model, the goal should be to empower the community of users for the site, Foster said. In every case, the state plays a crucial role as “the keeper of democratic principles,” even when ownership and governance are shared through various types of partnerships.  She was joined by panelists Keir Johnston, the co-founder of Amber Art and Design in Philadelphia, Scott Kratz, Director of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., Tyrone Mullins, co-founder of Green Streets, a zero-waste initiative in San Francisco, Kira Strong, Deputy Director of Design and Construction for the City of Philadelphia’s Rebuilding Community Infrastructure (Rebuild), and moderated by PennPraxis’ Elizabeth Greenspan. 

Johnston described his experience as an artist working at the Hatfield Housein Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Interventions in public sites should leave systems in place that allow surrounding communities to be autonomous in governing those spaces, he said. Kratz talked about the deep civic engagement work—more than 200 community meetings!—around the 11thStreet Bridge, saying that every programming idea implemented at the park came from the community. 

“If you give people confidence and show them value, they’ll change things where they live,” said Mullins, who also helped lead community design efforts around the Buchanan Street Mall Activation Projectin a low-income section of San Francisco, scarred by redevelopment. He talked about the importance of genuinely including communities in the ownership of public projects—not just tapping them for ideas and then carrying out projects without them. The Buchanan Street Mall project has brought people back into active use of an area that had been out-of-use for decades, he said. 

Kira Strong noted that Rebuild’s local Philadelphia investments will be prioritized based on their potential for promoting neighborhood growth. Of the 400 potential sites, some 90 percent need improvements, Strong said. With the City’s half-billion-dollar investment and support from philanthropic foundations, Rebuild will still likely touch only 100-150 sites. 

From Sites to Systems

Following the “sites” discussion, the first afternoon panel was focused on “systems,” and began with a presentation from Shannon Mattern, professor of media studies at The New School, who described the various benefits and pitfalls of a systems orientation for thinking about cities. On the one hand, viewing the city as a body—with circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems—illuminates certain aspects of the environment. On the other, Mattern said, systems thinking has been used in the past as a tool to promote stability over revolutionary change. Other members of the panel included Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles, Beth White, president and CEO of the Houston Parks Board, Jessica Garz, senior program officer for the Surdna Foundation, and was moderated by Cara Ferrentino, program officer for public space at the William Penn Foundation.

Speaking of their role in managing complex systems, Hawthorne described the ongoing efforts to reimagine the long-studied Los Angeles River as part of a larger advent of a new era in the city. How can the L.A. River become an integral part of “The Third L.A.?” Hawthorne asked.  

White discussed Houston’s Bayou Greenways 2020 project. The effort involves converting some 3,000 acres of space along the city’s rivers, creeks, and bayous into park space, connecting parks along the city’s waterways, and adding 80 miles of new trails along the bayous. Garz’s talk focused on facilitating projects aimed at restoring “paper monuments” and marginalized archives in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Changing the Rules

Policy was the focus of the final panel. It featured Barbara Brown Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and author of Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design; Ryan Gravel, creator of the Atlanta BeltLine and founding principal of the design firm SIXPITCH; Rebecca Chan, Program Officer for LISC National Creative Placemaking; and Nette Compton, Deputy Director – Parks for People at The Trust for Public Land. After all the panelists presented, moderator Randall Mason of PennPraxis asked them a question: If you could change one rule related to civic infrastructure, what would it be? 

Sticking with the themes of public ownership and governance that were threaded through the summit, their answers varied, and raised more questions. Billions of dollars are available for capital projects across the U.S., but little is available for operations and maintenance. Is it the right kind of money? Rules and cultural expectations around automobile parking limit a lot of innovation in public projects. Elected leaders who create the potential for major public investments are often gone before implementation can occur. Can proponents create policy structures that outlast election cycles? 

The final big questions remains: Who is at the center of the story? Users or designers? Communities or policymakers? The discussion will continue as PennPraxis and others continue to dig deeper into the topic of civic infrastructure.  

Read an op-ed from Randall Mason and Elizabeth Greenspan in the Philadelphia Inquirer,and more coverage from PlanPhilly and the William Penn Foundation. Audio recordings of the various panels and lectures will be available.