The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 17, 2016

How Philadelphia is creating lively public spaces and new community experiences

Posted by Dana DiFilippo

Charles Leadbeater event in Philadelphia. Photo by Dana DiFilippo for Knight Foundation

PHILADELPHIA — Hunting Park, an 87-acre park once overrun by drug dealers and addicts, is now an oasis, with athletic fields, gardens, an orchard and a weekly farmers’ market. Eakins Oval, a parking area most of the year, becomes a stunner every summer, with parkers banned to make way for a pedestrian paradise. And barren buildings in gritty neighborhoods bloom into beautiful conversation-starters, with artists so active that Philadelphia is known as the City of Murals.

Such efforts are thanks to civic innovators, people who when presented with a problem work collaboratively to create new places and experiences that strengthen cities, according to British author Charles Leadbeater, who examined how such civic innovations have revived Philadelphia and four other American cities (Detroit, Charlotte, N.C., Miami, and San Jose, Calif.). More than 50 people gathered Tuesday night at Pipeline Philly in Center City to hear Leadbeater talk about his research, a project funded by Knight Foundation and published in a slim book titled “More Together: The New Social Contract in U.S. Cities.” Leadbeater’s visit to Philadelphia kicked off a tour of the cities, which are also Knight communities, places where the foundation’s founders once owned newspapers.

Once a city known to outsiders mostly for poverty and violence, Philadelphia instead now stands in a “moment of opportunity,” said Leadbeater, a former journalist now recognized as an expert on innovation and creativity.

“You can feel that something is happening, just by the kind of spirit, atmosphere, culture, life, conviviality, vibrancy of the city,” he said. “It’s only come about through patient work over a very long period of time to get to this position. But I do think that it’s clear that Philadelphia is transforming, and it has a huge opportunity. It’s growing; the population is growing. It’s obviously attractive to lots of young people. It’s competing with other cities. It’s got a vibrant cultural and food scene, startups, you know, so on and so forth.”

But Leadbeater urged his audience – full of the sort of civic innovators he credited with the city’s resurgence – to build on what they started.

“Too often what happens is that cities go through periods of growth and then stop catching up with themselves, and actually what you’ve got to do is get ahead of it,” he said. “You’ve got to try and think forward into what kind of city you would like to be before you find out what kind of city you’ve become. … If you don’t think ahead, you’ll find yourselves catching up. You’ve got an opportunity to get ahead of that coming wave of investment and growth.”

Civic innovators come in all sorts of forms, Leadbeater said. Some are public leaders such as Paul Levy, who as head of the Center City District is credited with downtown’s renewal over the past decade. Others are community developers such as the People’s Emergency Center in Powelton, which started as a homeless hostel but evolved to encompass volunteer cleanups, digital literacy programs and other community-improvement activities. Still others are hybrid groups such as the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Mural Arts program, which “have one foot in the City Hall administration and another in the more informal power and politics of the community,” Leadbeater wrote in his report (several of the organizations cited, such as Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Mural Arts program, have received support from Knight Foundation). The most successful civic innovators scrap the idea of competitive advantage in favor of “complementary advantage,” banding together in ever-shifting coalitions to bring their ideas to life, he added.

But while their form differs, they’re united in a shared empathy and ability to see beyond their differences to create experiences and places “of public love,” Leadbeater said.

Their success also relies on a common premise: They start with what’s there.

“There is no blank sheet in cities. You cannot start from scratch. You have to work with what is there,” Leadbeater said. Civic innovators “are creative in blending the old and the new.”

That often means taking an existing but overlooked and underused resource and improving it by giving it a new character or feel, Leadbeater said. “It’s not inevitable that public assets are written off,” he added.

One example: Dilworth Plaza. What was once decried as a vast concrete field beside City Hall that gave people little reason to linger now is a draw year round, with interactive fountains, a lush lawn and cafe in the summer and an ice rink for winter visitors. The city’s public pools are another example. Although Philly has more pools per capita than any other city, many residents shun them because of their barren, utilitarian feel, Leadbeater wrote in his report. But designer Ben Bryant aims to change that with Pop-Up Pool, a pilot program that was one of last year’s winners of the Knight Cities Challenge, starting at the Francisville recreation center offering yoga and Zumba classes, cafes and more leisure opportunities. Leadbeater also applauded the Reading Terminal Market and efforts to turn an old railway into the Reading Viaduct Park, which have also received Knight support.

But there are no firm rules in civic innovation. So creating new spaces also can work, Leadbeater added, highlighting the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.

 “What this [boardwalk] signals to you is that someone cares about Philadelphia. Someone is thinking about its future in rather down-to-earth and social but well-designed ways,” he said. Successful civic innovations are “designed to elicit, love, care, attachment and kindness. What will make Philadelphia distinctive is not the buses and the subways, though those have to work. What will make it distinctive is the love, care and kindness people show to one another [through such civic innovations as the boardwalk].”

Perhaps inevitable in such a discussion is the thorny issues gentrification raises. What happens when civic innovation improves a neighborhood so much that it elbows out longtime residents, one audience member asked. Leadbeater had no glib answers.

Gentrification “is not necessarily an evil. It’s part of what makes cities dynamic. No city is going to grow without new people coming in. What you can’t say is: ‘Yes, you’ve been here quite a long time, [and] no new people allowed!’ Because that’s death. You’ve got to have new people.”

Yet at the same time, he cautioned that civic innovators must take care to include residents who have been historically excluded.

“What makes cities really come alive is the way that different people find their differences appealing and interesting, and they overcome what might separate them,” he said. In his report, he cited Temple University Prof. Youngjin Yoo, who created a summer program for students to learn how to develop smartphone apps (also sponsored by Knight Foundation), with the goal of giving underprivileged children, who typically are African-American, a route into the growing local technology community.

“This is a city with serious challenges with poverty, exclusion, immigration, disengagement. It’s got a long way to go,” Leadbeater acknowledged. “But at the moment, Philadelphia has got this sort of unfurling feeling to it that’s very powerful.”

Dana DiFilippo is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist. Contact her via, and follow her on Twitter @DanaDiFilippo

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