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

What does it take to create a vibrant city with lots of opportunity? Well, in an earlier time, people might have cited a big anchor business, a port facility or a prime tourist attraction. But after years of thinking and research about urban renewal, the answers have become more nuanced and complex.

A city has got to attract talented peoplelike those creatives we always hear aboutbut not in a way that pushes out the working class that actually makes things go. Developing a cutting edge industry can be a boon, but cities also need to nurture ladders of opportunity that lead upward from low-wage service jobs. You want engaged citizens, yes, but too much NIMBYism can make it hard to undertake big projects. 

It's not easy distilling the secret sauce of urban vitality, but the Knight Foundation is making an effort with its Knight Cities Challenge, which just announced 32 winners to divvy up $5 million in funding from the foundation.

Knight doesn't pretend to have the recipe of that secret sauce, but it does believe that three ingredients are essential to creative successful cities: talent, opportunity, and engagement.

Back in September, foundation Vice President Carol Coletta explained this trifecta:

  • Talent is essential "because the percentage of college graduates in your population explains 58 percent of your metro area’s success." Yet because talented people are super-mobile, getting them to settle in your city is no easy thing. These people "want to live in vibrant, diverse communities."
  • Opportunity is critical "because it is fundamental to getting more people on the ladder of economic success." Cities can't just leave a swath of their people behind, and those that break down class divides and offer ladders upward do the best. 
  • Engagement is vital because you need everyone pulling a city in the right direction through all the little decisions they make all the time that shape the future. 

But if Coletta thinks all these drivers are important in cities, she freely admits that there is limited knowledge about how to "make them happen in our communities." The Cities Challenge is about building that foundation. 

We'll leave it to others to quibble with this grand theory of urban renewal. Instead, with that background in mind, let's dig into who won the 32 awards. 

Back in January, we gave you a sampling of some of the 126 finalists for the Knight Cities Challenge. Those 126 were culled from over 7,000 ideas submitted for the challenge from public and government organizations, design experts, urban planning organizations, and individual citizens.

The 32 winners will implement a diverse array of urban renewal ideas, all of which are meant to impact three key drivers of city success. Winning projects are based in 12 of the 26 communities where Knight invests, including: Akron, Ohio; Bradenton, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbus, Ga.; Detroit; Gary, Ind.; Lexington, Ky.; Macon, Ga.; Miami; Philadelphia; St. Paul, Minn.; and San Jose, Calif. Two projects focus on multiple Knight communities.

The full list of winners will be available soon, but we've been given a sneak peek. We'd like to highlight a few winners that have great potential to be just plain fun:

  • “Porch” Swings in Public Places, $28,000 (Submitted by Tom Warshauer): Fostering conversation among strangers by installing Charlotte’s signature porch swings in public spaces.
  • The Buzz, $84,055 by Detroit Future City (Submitted by Erin Kelly): Pairing barbers with landscape contractors to transform overgrown vacant lots through facilitated design workshops that teach mowing and pattern-making techniques.
  • 4 Play, $117,000 by Greater MSP (Submitted by Peter Frosch): Changing the way people perceive the city and its climate by inviting all residents to come together for an outdoor activity—whether it’s ice fishing or summer canoeing—once per season.

And a few of the high rollers in terms of grant size:

  • Lexington, Kentucky's Northside Common Market: $550,000 by North Limestone Community Development Corp. (Submitted by Richard Young): Repurposing a vacant bus station into a market for locally grown food and locally made goods and a creative business incubator that will serve as a neighborhood hub.
  • Gary, Indiana's ArtHouse: a Social Kitchen: $650,000 by Rebuild Foundation (submitted by Lori Berko): Repurposing a vacant space in downtown Gary as a culinary incubator and café designed to reinvigorate downtown while creating jobs and opportunities for residents.
  • In Philadelphia: The Pop-Up Pool Project: $297,000 by Group Melvin Design (Submitted by Benjamin Bryant): Introducing fun, easy solutions at city pools, which will be designed to make them more vibrant places to meet and interact with neighbors and friends.

We'd like to take a minute to gloat about our skills at picking winners, since a few ideas we highlighted last January made it all the way:

  • Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation: $261,500 by Mt. Airy USA (Submitted by Anuj Gupta): Harnessing the talent and energy of immigrants to revitalize distressed neighborhoods by providing centers that would offer immigrant entrepreneurs low-cost space, language assistance, workshops and trainings, and access to traditional and non-traditional sources of capital.
  • Houslets: $40,000 by Houslets (Submitted by Tim McCormick): Prototyping and deploying low-cost, modular housing and workspace units to test a new model for temporary and affordable housing for San Jose’s fast-growing population. These are off-grid housing and workspace units meant to accommodate events, projects, creative space or the homeless.
  • Operation Export Macon: $75,000 by College Hill Alliance (Submitted by Joshua Lovett): Fostering city pride and helping attract newcomers to Macon by sending one man in a roaming trailer to nearby cities, to showcase the city’s best food, goods and experiences. Party wagon projects were big in the list of 126, so it figures that at least one of them was a winner.

The takeaway from all this? If you want to apply next year, these ideas might give you direction. Or you might want to check on a project with ideas you are thinking of incorporating, to see how it's working out. The challenge will reopen for submissions in fall 2015. 

Related: What Living Cities is Doing With Citi to Push Innovation in Urban America