In a Funder's Big Commitment to Boosting Public Spaces, a Better Way for Parks Philanthropy

As much as urban parks philanthropy has taken off in recent years, the majority of the time, you’re dealing with a funder giving to support a single project. It’s often in a downtown or proximate area, seeking to breathe new life into a city center or polish a fading local gem. 

Part of what’s so compelling about a new, $100 million commitment from the William Penn Foundation is the fact that it’s in support of a citywide project, most of which goes toward distressed or struggling neighborhoods well beyond Philadelphia’s booming Center City. 

William Penn is a large regional funder, with assets of $2.3 billion and a deep commitment to Greater Philadelphia. It's given large sums to revamping individual city parks and public spaces, and to establishing local biking and walking trails, among other priorities. In fact, it's hard to think of many foundations that have poured as much money as Penn into remaking a local landscape.

But this is a big move for the funder, coming at a time of instability in William Penn's leadership, as we've reported. The $100 million, the largest grant it's made to date, supports a city project with a $500 million price tag to fund improvements to parks, recreation centers, playgrounds and libraries. Penn already spent $4.8 million of the total in planning funds, another $75 million is contingent on the approval of $300 million in city bonds, and the remaining $20 million is a matching grant for the city to raise additional federal and private support. 

A major focus of the project is civic engagement, and the foundation was actually inspired by another initiative, “Reimagining the Civic Commons,” a partnership with the Knight Foundation and other funders that started in Philly and was recently extended to four other cities. 


The grant announcement emphasizes the need to rebuild trust and a sense of community in the "current climate," and bringing communities together through creative use of public space. I tend to think this gives too much credit to the ability of public spaces to overcome much deeper and systemic economic divides in our cities. But that said, public spaces are hugely important to communities, and it’s an admirable goal to consider how parks and other gathering places are part of a city’s broader equity picture. 

Other things to like about this grant include the citywide focus. As we’ve seen most vividly in New York, high-dollar park donors all too often have a love affair with places like Central Park and the High Line, while small neighborhood spaces are left in the literal dust. By making a larger-than-usual commitment to scale park funding beyond blossoming downtown areas, the Penn grant could show a way forward for greater equity in parks philanthropy. 

Another attribute is the fact that the donation is serving a larger, city-led vision. A not-entirely-appropriate automotive analogy for good parks philanthropy is that you want to see the funder give some gas money, buy a map, maybe pay for a tune-up, but when they jump into the driver’s seat and floor it, you’ve got a problem. This funding at least appears to give a major boost and financial incentive to the mayor’s project without hijacking it.


The big question, here, gets back to whether parks and public spaces can actually be agents of equity, stitching together disparate city neighborhoods. We’ve seen how they can even drive inflating costs of housing and leave the existing community behind—in other words, serving future residents, not current residents. 

For Philadelphia’s Rebuild project to be successful, it will need to elevate surrounding residents as leaders and address overall neighborhood poverty conditions, along with the spaces in question. Penn’s director has emphasized the importance of the community engagement process as an end result in itself, which is great. If successful, it could offer an example of how to do more equitable, holistic parks philanthropy.