Knight Grants Show How Creative Cities are Getting With a Tough Mix of Problems

Knight’s philanthropic competitions tend to yield a mix of projects that demonstrate the level of innovation happening in a given field. The funder’s second challenge to re-envision cities is backing 37 wild ideas like turning pest-devoured trees into art and front lawns into parks.

The Knight Foundation has one of the most rigorous and deliberate processes out there for choosing new grantees, in the form of recurring challenges to improve fields like the arts, media, health, and civic engagement. We’ve given mixed report cards to such philanthropic competitions in the past, including the pitfall of overemphasizing ideas.

But I gotta say, as competitions go, the Knight Challenges are pretty much the gold standard. The way they reward many winners and offer relatively high transparency and public involvement draws some of the most creative trends and concepts floating around in the field of each challenge. 

Related:The Perils of All These Prizes

For the second year, Knight held a Cities Challenge that asked participants to make the foundation's 26 regions of focus into more vibrant places. The foundation recently announced 37 winners, splitting $5 million. Mostly as a function of Knight’s priority communities, a lot of grants went to the Midwest and South; post-industrial cities like Philadelphia and Detroit were also big winners. 

The Knight Cities Challenges have so far presented an interesting blend of economic revitalization, parks and recreation, arts, and government. Here are some of the trends that showed up in this pool of winners. 

Parks of All Shapes and Sizes

Knight has displayed a deep love of communal spaces, greenery and recreation, and this challenge was no exception. These elements were present in almost a third of the winning entries, with biking and walking popping up frequently. 

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

Tiny or unconventional parks made the grade, with one project receiving $75,000 to create sustainable “microparks” in Detroit to meet community needs, and the Front Lawn Placemaking Platform winning $82,000 to turn front lawns in St. Paul into community hubs. 

Some bigger projects also rose to the top. The Underline landed $250,000 to create a sports field and gym in a proposed linear park below a transit line. Another project will use $120,000 to turn an abandoned section of highway into a bicycle park. Which brings us to the next recurring theme...

Repurposing Abandoned, Crumbling Places

Revitalization is a big part of Knight’s community support, and one type of project that landed a lot of funding in the 2016 challenge was revival, reuse, or transformation of underused parts of town. It won’t come as a surprise that many of these grants went to Midwestern cities like Detroit and places in Indiana and Ohio. 

In fact, the largest grant in the competition of $385,000 went to create Steel City Salvage, a proposed reuse facility that will reclaim and sell building materials from vacant homes in Gary, Indiana. The city has more than 6,000 vacant and dilapidated properties, and rather than sending demolished houses to a landfill, the project will directly resell much-sought vintage materials. 

A number of other grants involve transforming unused spaces, including Evolving MidTown, which will train residents in Columbus to become small-scale developers on beat-up lots. Urban Glen, the smallest grant at just $4,000, will turn vacant lots into little hangouts complete with trees, lights and hammocks.

And another favorite of mine is Tree Debris to Opportunity, which will train the homeless in Boulder to repurpose trees killed by the invasive emerald ash borer.

New Economic Opportunity

Finally, there were some slightly more traditional proposals for rebuilding economic strength, reflecting the entrepreneurial spirit throughout Knight’s grantmaking. For example, a project in Detroit will help business owners establish popup shops in shipping containers along a path that was once a railroad line. 

The irresistible Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship provides unconventional business training to low-income groups in Philadelphia. And since no city revitalization effort would be complete without food trucks, a program in Grand Forks, North Dakota will help immigrants acquire the vehicles and equipment to start food service businesses.  

This is just a sampling, and while they had a smaller role than we’ve seen in other Knight grantmaking, there were a few savvy tech projects in the mix. That said, a lot of these projects are basically good old-fashioned community engagement. There are many competing problems confronting American cities, from public health to blight, and the spread of projects rewarded here demonstrates the creative ways people are tackling them where they all overlap—at the ground level.