What a Funder Collaborative on Civic Spaces Means for Chicago’s South and West Sides

Credit: southie3 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)A prominent theme that’s emerged in our recent coverage of local Chicago grantmaking is funder collaborations. There must be something in the air in the Windy City lately, because foundations here are teaming up with greater frequency, higher profiles, and bigger money. Some of the biggest players in the city have recently joined forces to reduce violent crime and improve youth safety and educational attainment.


Meanwhile, another collaborative we're following is focused on neighborhood improvement.

Recently, we wrote about the Reimagining the Civic Commons effort in four American cities. To quickly recap, the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation are investing a total of $20 million, to be matched by another $20 million from local sources. Chicago is one of those cities, alongside Akron, Detroit, and Memphis, and we thought the funders’ Chicago effort was worth a closer look.

Related: Can Parks and Public Spaces Really Alleviate Economic Segregation?

The community development project that came out of this funder collaboration is called the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons. It targets the city’s struggling South and West Sides and aims to boost opportunities for those communities that have missed out on the economic success of other parts of Chicago. The sites of interest are largely based on the South Side and include Stony Island Arts Bank, St. Laurence Elementary School and Kenwood Gardens here. These locations were chosen for their promise of attracting diverse visitors and transcending socio-economic backgrounds.  

Meanwhile, the West Side site that’s part of this project is a section of Chicago Park District land that’s a manufacturing asset. This is where the intriguing workforce training component of the project comes in because renovated industrial buildings here can serve as venues for teaching lessons in production and programming.

Yet the entire Chicago project has a strong arts angle. The Garfield Park Industrial Arts area on the West Side, for example, will turn former stables and a powerhouse into a hub for industrial arts. And the Stony Island Arts Bank is being turned into an arts palace by artist Theaster Gates.

But the big challenge here is connecting these unrelated places in the city and making them relevant examples of integration and improved access. So far, the details about how exactly this will be done are a bit vague and abstract. 

Chicago is a large, sprawling city with a distributed network of civic assets. But the hope here is to improve just four of those assets and see if those localized improvements bring neighbors together and integrate people from different backgrounds.

This is an anchor strategy that worked in Philadelphia with help from the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation in 2014. Yet the Philadelphia effort was more focused on trails, nature appreciation, and active recreation. The effort there got an extra boost from a new sweetened beverage tax.

There’s a lot riding on the investments in these four places in Chicago becoming popular and having a greater impact on the areas that surrounds them. If so, more support from local funders will likely follow, outside the big four that kicked off this collaboration. But for now, it’s all just an experiment.

Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president, said:

We see this as a series of local experiments to interpret a common theme: what is the purpose of community spaces like parks, libraries, municipal buildings or even sidewalks? What binds us to place and to each other? Citizen engagement must be a cornerstone of our re-thinking how to use great civic spaces for today's diverse and inclusive communities. This is a brilliant role for philanthropy and will be successful if neighbors and local government take the findings and make them theirs.

Tune into the Reimagining the Civic Commons website in the months ahead for updates on the collaborative’s research, metrics, and stories from Chicago.