A model for remaking public spaces, researched by PennPraxis

Civic infrastructure is made up of both hard and soft components. Everybody loves the hard features, such as swanky new parks, pools, schools, recreational centers, and libraries. The soft elements, like the financing, maintenance, and management required to maintain these structures and green spaces, are less charismatic and routinely overlooked.

“Usually when people think about infrastructure, they only think about the ‘hard’ aspects and not the ‘soft’ aspects,” says Randall Mason, executive director of PennPraxis and an associate professor in and chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign.

In their recent report, “Civic Infrastructure: A Model for Civic Asset Reinvestment,” Mason and Elizabeth Greenspan, an senior researcher at PennPraxis, investigate how cities can provide high-functioning civic assets to all residents, and the kinds of investment in engagement, programming, design, and maintenance a municipality needs in order to bring about a truly equitable distribution of public resources. The study is the first in a series of forthcoming white papers on the topic.

The cornerstone of the report is the growing trend in a large number of North American cities to prioritize neighborhood spaces as a result of residents valuing open space and public space. The authors present lessons learned from large-scale reinvestment projects in cities such as New York, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Montreal.

Soon after the paper was published in April, PennPraxis presented “Remaking Civic Infrastructure: A Discussion of How Cities are Reinvesting in Libraries, Parks, Rec Centers, and the Public Realm,” a symposium at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that featured Maurice Cox, planning director for the City of Detroit; Ryan Gravel, urban designer and creator of the Atlanta Beltline; and Lynne Sagalyn, a professor of real estate at Columbia Business School. The panelists discussed the questions and challenges facing major North American cities as they invest in public spaces.

Mason and Greenspan’s report shows that building a robust network of civic assets requires profound, long-term, and systematic changes in four areas of common practice: community engagement; institutional makeup and leadership; maintenance and programming; and measurement.

“All of these practices are already happening in most cities, but there’s a lot of value to be gained in connecting these different kinds of issues,” Mason says. “In other words, how does design and maintenance benefit from having a community that’s more engaged, and are the institutions that we have the right ones for building good neighborhood parks and libraries and rec centers?”

Community engagement, the authors note, must begin early in the reinvestment process in order to be effective, and stake-holding and decision-making must thoroughly integrate knowledge generated through community engagement.

Institutionally, Greenspan says public-private partnerships are how a lot of city-making gets done these days, and there are prevailing questions about which kinds of public-private partnerships best support the public good, and which ones can support making a city more equitable.

Mason says an indication of the importance of maintenance is Philadelphia’s Rebuilding Community Infrastructure Initiative, also known as Rebuild, which he says is “basically like an ambitious, long-term preservation strategy.” Over the next six years, the city will invest $500 million to refurbish libraries, recreation centers, and parks.

“We have a legacy of these neighborhood parks and rec centers and libraries—we already have them, we don’t have to pay for them, but we do need to pay to maintain them. That’s essentially what Rebuild is about, fixing and improving and connecting those existing smaller assets that are distributed all over the city.”

He says one of the goals of the “Civic Infrastructure” report is to help contextualize Rebuild by reconceptualizing the challenges and opportunities of such large-scale reinvestments.

Greenspan says another aim of the paper is to underscore that public spaces matter, as well as examining how they matter to people and are able to prioritize engaging citizens in their own public spaces.

“In all of the areas of practice that we explore, the public has essential roles to play,” she says. “People care about their neighborhood spaces; it’s one of the reasons why so many cities are investing in them now. It’s important to investigate how cities can do this work well.”