Here's Another Sign That Funding for Parks and Shared Spaces Is Getting More Creative

Turning vacant lots into tree nurseries. Pairing barbers with landscapers. Parks as peacemakers.

The Knight Foundation's first competition focusing on improving cities resulted in some pretty cool ideas for shared space. 

We're always on the lookout for philanthropy-backed projects that are doing exciting things (and sometimes scary things!) with shared spaces. Well, the Knight Foundation's newest grant competition just cut checks to a bunch of them. While not quite a parks funder (Knight is more into arts, civic engagement, and media), this funder is keen on pretty much anything that can help urban communities thrive. 

Related - Behind Knight's City Awards: A Vision of Urban Renewal Driven by Three Key Ingredients

The foundation just wrapped up its first-ever Knight Cities Challenge, a grant open to applicants with bright ideas to improve 26 communities in the United States. The Knight challenges are competitive RFPs for which large numbers of people apply with brief online proposals (this one drew more than 7,000), and judges narrow them down to a short list of winners.

They tend to yield some pretty offbeat projects, not to mention killer ideas, and the cities challenge was no exception. A big theme among winning proposals was improved use of public or unused space, or the reimagining of the public commons. Some winners involved more basic work like advocating for parks or hosting outdoor events. But they also got a bit more adventurous than your typical parks grant.

The ideas that attracted Knight money are worth highlighting to give you a sense of where more philanthropic dollars might be heading in the future. As we've said, we're very much living in a golden age of parks philanthropy, with more funders coming into this area—and some of these funders getting more creative about creating shared spaces. (The High Line Park in New York is a prime example.) Indeed, growing attention to the more elastic concept of shared spaces, as opposed to parks, is itself an indicator of how this funding niche is evolving. 

RelatedThe New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

Here a few interesting projects that won Knight funding:

  • The No Barriers Project - A city employee in Charlotte came up with this idea to take physical features that separate disparate neighborhoods—think of railroad tracks, bridges, or parks that may otherwise separate a minority community, for example—and turn them into collaborative projects. Communities on either side of a barrier are invited to co-create a new common space at the location. $67,100. 
  • Urban Arboreta - Philadelphia was the most successful city, with seven winning proposals. This project will take vacant land in the city and turn them into tree nurseries, which will supply trees for replanting in city streets, parks, and riparian corridors. It will improve the urban forest, build a more diverse landscape using vacant land, and provide work opportunities. $65,000.
  • Minimum Grid: Maximum Impact - Columbus, Georgia has what this proposal refers to as “scattered gems,” that are difficult to travel between in any way other than driving. This project seeks to create basic connections between them for pedestrians and cyclists. In particular, it will better connect the diverse, densely populated Midtown with other assets of the city. In other words, take a city with parts connected only via car, and link them up for all. $200,000.
  • The Buzz - There’s not a whole lot of detail on this winner, one of five in Detroit, but the idea is too intriguing not to mention. The proposal by Detroit Future City would pair together barbers and landscape contractors to transform overgrown vacant lots in the city, including workshops teaching mowing and pattern-making techniques. $84,000.
  • The Pop-Up Pool Project - Another Philly project, and not quite a parks project, but this one hopes to breathe new life into the city’s many public pools (public pools can be a little bleak right?). An urban planner there saw how cities were using good design to reimagine open spaces like piers and gardens, and will use this grant to try the same thing with city pools. $297,000. 

The best thing about the Knight Cities Challenge as a parks funding mechanism is the accessible nature of the contest. Knight competitions are notably out in the open, and they invite and reward community-driven projects. A lot of these donor-backed parks projects tend to be top-down, involving a funder pushing some gargantuan vanity project behind closed doors. If a foundation is going to reshape shared spaces in a city, it's great to see the ideas coming from a wide pool of people on the ground.

See the full list of winners here