People First: Making the Commons Real | Editorial

The movement toward more people-centric civic design has a new tool to put to work. Last month, the Gehl Institute released “A Mayor’s Guide to Public Life”—an inspirational document that showcases breakthrough projects large and small and offers perspective on how to drive such development at the local level. Anyone interested in how we all experience the spaces we move through will find this valuable. Libraries are natural partners in this endeavor, and there are many ideas here to consider applying in the places our libraries touch—whether literally or through partnerships.

The movement toward more people-centric civic design has a new tool to put to work. Last month, the Gehl Institute released “A Mayor’s Guide to Public Life”—an inspirational document that showcases breakthrough projects large and small and offers perspective on how to drive such development at the local level. Anyone interested in how we all experience the spaces we move through will find this valuable. Libraries are natural partners in this endeavor, and there are many ideas here to consider applying in the places our libraries touch—whether literally or through partnerships.

While presenting a tactical process outline for mayors and their administrations to go ahead on improving public spaces, the guide also offers a challenge. The introduction gets right to the point: “We believe that removing barriers to participation and making it easier for more people to spend time in public spaces is key to creating thriving, democratic cities. It’s a legacy that every mayor should aspire to.”

How? The “Mayor’s Guide” offers what it calls a formula for civic leaders to follow as they approach enhancing the way people engage with their cities and towns: “measure, invite, do, evolve, formalize.” Crucial to the process is seeing how people use a site in the current state first, documenting what they do and where, to understand gaps and opportunities and to inform the case for investment. Then measuring impact down the line.

Walkability is a common theme among the case studies, illustrating the results of implementing this formula, the range of solutions, and their impact on livability. Examples include the “pedestrianization” of New York City’s Times Square and Denver’s pilot to bring foot traffic to a transit corridor with its 16th Street Mall project. Those are something to study, and so is a park project in Lexington, KY, which epitomizes what can be gained when planners put people first. There, tension over kids playing in a fountain in a city park became transformational when leaders saw the opportunity to improve the park experience for everyone by introducing more places for kids to play, including water features, in a project dubbed “SplashJAM.”

There is no time like the present to further this work. Writing in Philanthropy Daily on May 1, Kyle Kutchief, Katy Locker, and Patrick Morgan assert the commons as an indispensable aspect of American democracy. “It’s an essential time for local communities to invest in places and spaces that bring us—all of us—together,” they write. “A neighborhood public library, park, or recreation [area is] often the place where strangers come together, where we learn about each other, and where neighbors and local decision-makers meet to create a better community.” The report includes ways to assess whether that’s happening, including deeper economic integration, and find ways to increase the use of public spaces by a wider diversity of people and despite economic disparity.

The authors point to the five-year, five-city Reimagining the Civic Commons project currently underway with the support of the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and local funders. Among the wins they point to is Philadelphia, the first pilot location, where the library is part of a new vision for interconnecting the city. The process led to Mayor Jim Kenny’s decision to infuse $500 million into Philadelphia’s public spaces. (We will hear all about it in November, when we hold LJ’s annual Directors Summit there.) On a different scale is Detroit’s effort to reinvent localism with “20-minute neighborhoods” designed to meet people’s needs within, yes, a 20-minute walk.

“In our communities, we see our civic commons as the spaces where people create opportunities to connect through shared experience,” write Kutchief, Locker, and Morgan. Large and small, the ideas that stem from these projects are making the commons real in new and exciting ways. We can all use these resources to learn, to get inside the mind-set of mayors and civic leaders, and to engage them in conversation. Your library can help make a new commons real for your community as well.

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