What is the Knight Foundation's Vision for Urban Renewal? We Just Got More Hints

The Knight Foundation took another step forward in its work to bolster U.S. cities recently, by identifying 126 finalists in its Cities Challenge. All 26 of Knight's communities of focus for the challenge are represented in the pool of finalists and the winners will divvy up $5 million in funding.

Over 7,000 ideas were submitted for the challenge, coming from public and government organizations, design experts, urban planning organizations, and individual citizens.

So which ideas came out on top? We're glad you asked, because the common denominator for these projects is their potential to impact three key drivers of city success: talent, opportunity, and engagement. In turn, this takeaway offers insights into how the Knight Foundation is thinking about urban renewal. 

If your city hasn't gotten involved in this challenge yet, don't worry. This is only year one of a three-year $15 million dollar commitment that Knight started in the fall of 2014. Lots of the finalists are in cities that Knight is already heavily invested in like Detroit, Akron, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Jose. While the list is long, here are some themes that seemed to recur in each category.

Opportunity: Ideas that expand economic prospects and break down divides

A theme of many of the finalists was pitching and voting for new ideas to improve the economy, create business, or solve social problems: 

  • In Detroit, ProsperU$Det Innovation Stations in Your Neighborhood by Southwest Economic Solutions will create neighborhood “opportunity kiosks” where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to residents who vote on proposals to receive small loans, subsidized rent and entrepreneurial training.
  • In Macon, Georgia: Make It Happen in Macon Community Venture Capital Fund would provide seed funding for businesses, causes and projects every month by having residents vote online to select five top ideas that will be presented in a forum where community judges will make final selections.
  • In San Jose, California, KQED News has a plan to make a show called The Resolution, which would host "civic debates as engaging as televised sports coverage by assigning teams to an issue, crowdsourcing research, and presenting the debate live online." 

Engagement: Ideas that spur connection and civic involvement 

Mobile entertainment seemed to be a big theme in the engagement area. Everyone wants to try out the idea of being an engagement party wagon. Many of these ideas also involved rehabbing vacant lots or using outdoor space. Some of the mobile ideas included:

  • Flashbulb, a mobile entertainment vehicle that will travel around Akron and host "festive gatherings where people transform vacant lots into flower gardens."
  • Food Truck for the Brain and Hands will serve Denver by "deploying an ever-morphing mobile lab to host neighborhood dialogue and develop collaborative solutions to urban challenges."
  • In Philadelphia, there is a proposal for a Pop-Up Hustle Shopa mobile mall that will provide traditional businesses with the ability to reach a wider audience of customers throughout the city.
  • In Macon, Georgia, there is Operation Export Macon, by College Hill Alliance, which aims to foster city pride by creating a roving camper van showcasing the best food, goods, and experiences Macon has to offer.

Talent: Ideas that help cities attract and keep the best and brightest

  • Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub by Mt. Airy USA. This hub would "harness the talent and energy of immigrants to revitalize distressed neighborhoods by providing centers that would provide low-cost space, language assistance, workshops and trainings, and access to traditional and non-traditional sources of capital." 
  • Made in Dade: This program would match entrepreneurs and inventors with local manufacturers who can produce their goods, with goal of creating a positive environment for talented creators while stimulating the job market.
  • Why Would Anyone Want to Live in Detroit, by LIVE Detroit. This is a plan to create "a one-stop shop for information about neighborhoods and living in the city" and thereby attract and retain talent.

Most Practical Ideas

We've also picked out some ideas that shine for their practicality, not to mention their innovation.

  • In Detroit: Social Water Financing: Testing and delivering community-based financing for household and neighborhood water services that promote recycling and reduce water use, such as harvesting rainwater, establishing rain gardens and retrofitting housing with hyperefficient toilets.
  • TechTown Detroit is proposing SWOT City Shine, a plan to engage the community in designing solar lighting for the city’s commercial corridors and address problems with maintaining lighting infrastructure.
  • Knight Houses in San Jose: "low-cost, modular, off-grid housing and workspace units to serve as civic building blocks to accommodate events, projects, creative space or the homeless."

Many of these ideas have great potential not only to enliven the community but also to build economic activity, create jobs, and integrate sustainable environmental practices. Winners will be announced in March. We'll be waiting with bated breath.