A Foundation Gives Millions for Innovation in Cities. What Kinds of Ideas Are Winning Support?

Detroit riverfront

Detroit riverfront

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states the “laboratories of democracy.” But there’s been plenty of experimenting happening at the city level these days, as local governments look for new ways to solve urban problems and build more robust metropolitan centers at a time when many Americans are drawn to city living. 

Philanthropy has played a big part in that experimentation, both filling funding gaps and nudging forward innovations in transit, infrastructure, shared spaces and much more. Bloomberg Philanthropies has been a top player in this space lately, as we've reported, with tens of millions of dollars in giving to advance the use of data and evidence-based policy by city governments across the U.S. Other funders like Kresge, Surdna, and Rockefeller have sought to push forward new ideas for helping cities become more sustainable and inclusive, while the philanthropic arms of major banks, like JPMorgan Chase and Citi, have been underwriting creative public-private strategies for workforce development and affordable housing. 

Another prominent funder supporting innovation in urban areas is the Knight Foundation, in part through its Knight Cities Challenge, which just wrapped its third year of grantmaking. 

Because Knight’s competitive grant programs often signal (or perhaps inform) current trends within its areas of interest, we always like to take a look at what these challenges dig up. This year, of the 33 Knight Cities winners sharing $5 million, we’re seeing a lot grants for things like placemaking, parks, and economic development, but also a big emphasis on engaging the public with government and city decision making. 


While such programs seem to have a bigger presence this year than last, it makes perfect sense within the foundation’s goals, which include informed and engaged communities. Knight is a national foundation, but in a way, it acts like a local funder to 26 communities where it makes grants. In the first two years of the Knight Cities Challenge, we saw a lot of giving for parks projects big and small, along with a lot of adaptive reuse, and rebuilding economic strength. 

About a dozen 2017 winners are focused on public engagement with government and local decision making, more than in the 2016 round. Some of the more creative ideas include the development of a citizenship kit delivered to Detroiters on their 18th birthdays, and a mobile voting booth in Milledgeville, Georgia, to allow residents to chime in on local initiatives. I also like the State’s Front Porch, which will make the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, into a more welcoming space, with seating, events, and workspaces on the site. Among a number of diversity- and tolerance-themed projects, an Aberdeen, South Dakota, grant will create a new center to provide information and assistance to immigrants.  

Of course, a number of creative parks projects landed funds as well, including one in Akron, Ohio, that will turn a closed freeway into green space connecting two physically isolated neighborhoods. Another winner will create an inviting urban beach along the Detroit waterfront. There’s also a twist on trails funding, with a project in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that will turn bike paths into ice skating paths in the winter. And, as in previous years, a bunch of projects involve repurposing vacant spaces, like turning an abandoned gothic church in Gary, Indiana, into a garden and event space.

Knight’s open, phased approach to its philanthropic challenges always tends to draw a ton of interesting ideas, with more than 4,500 submissions in this year's Cities Challenge. But one of the most encouraging things about this particular program is that so many of the projects seek to facilitate or contribute to democracy, which philanthropy at its worst tends to undermine. 

See all the winners here