Philanthropy’s Fixing Up Parks and Public Spaces. How Do We Know It's Helping Communities?  

 new condo buildings along the High Line in New York. Photo: GagliardiImages/shutterstock

new condo buildings along the High Line in New York. Photo: GagliardiImages/shutterstock

Everyone loves a nice park. Same goes for libraries, public plazas, trails, etc. But how much of a positive impact do revamped public spaces have on a community or city? Or more importantly, could they have a negative impact?

We’ve asked these very questions many times when it comes to the way philanthropy is helping to reshape public spaces around the country. One of the more philosophically ambitious initiatives leveraging private funds to upgrade public spaces is trying to come up with some answers, using a philanthropic staple—metrics. 

What’s most interesting about the effort is that it’s trying to get a grip not just on outcomes like daily use or even economic impact, but also the social impacts like political engagement and how much we trust each other. The idea is that the data combined could help guide a portfolio of projects, but also encourage greater investment in this type of infrastructure. 

Related: 

The data-gathering effort is part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a joint project of four foundations and five "demonstration cities" to improve parks, libraries, plazas, and trails. The JPB, Knight, Kresge and Rockefeller foundations are backing the effort with $20 million, matched with another $20 million in local funds from Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. Projects will transform underused parcels and buildings, even a closed elementary school, into green spaces and community hubs for recreation, gathering, and the arts.

The effort, which sprung from a pilot in Philadelphia, is based on the thesis that when done right, these spaces have the power to foster engagement, equity, sustainability and economic development. That’s a tall order, which is why the data component of the three-year project attempts to provide some hard numbers on whether that premise is true in one or all of these categories. 

Partnering with Knight-funded think tank City Observatory and design firm Interface Studio, the team is combining surveys, mapping, visual assessments and third-party data to measure progress on four main goals—civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability, and value creation. They’ve already created baseline ratings for each city’s project sites and surrounding neighborhoods, and will circle back to gauge improvement annually. 

Some of the stuff they’re measuring is pretty straightforward urban planning info—number of visitors, public perception, and environmental ratings around stormwater management or tree canopies. 

But then things get interesting. The project will measure before and after ratings of factors like voter turnout in the surrounding area, support for government spending on related projects, support for politicians who back such projects, and trust in politicians and other people. It will even measure “acts of stewardship or advocacy” like picking up trash or volunteering. 

One important feature in the data is that it looks not just at what’s happening at the site, but also the surrounding neighborhood. They’re measuring income and racial diversity of site visitors, but also the neighbors around it. You could imagine a park with diverse visitors in an increasingly white neighborhood, or a diverse neighborhood with a park that’s only used by one demographic. 

Similarly, the system looks at real estate values, rents and businesses in the area, and on the last point, whether they are independent or part of large national chains. This gets to whether locals and small businesses are benefitting, or just Starbucks and Targets. 

The reason monitoring all of these potential outcomes is so interesting is that city infrastructure projects can have any number of consequences, intended or otherwise. They can accelerate real estate values, price out or alienate longtime residents, bring in new businesses, or flood the area with tourists. As cities and their donors have paved (unpaved?) the way for trail systems in Philly, a huge city park in Tulsa, or a floating performance space in New York, serious questions about these implications have followed. This project marks an attempt to put some numbers to those implications. 

From a philanthropic standpoint, metrics like these are compelling in the sense that they could help privately funded projects serve as a laboratory for future investment from the public sector. One criticism of privately funded public spaces, along with the danger of undue donor influence, is that they could undermine democracy or prioritization of public spending on such shared assets. 

One explicit goal of this measurement project is to “build the rationale for further investment in revitalized and connected public places.” By gathering data, not just on use, but also on how such projects affect support for politicians, engagement with government, and equitable economic development, it could further arm advocates pushing for more widespread projects or policy. 

Related: