Research Report Civic Assets for More Equitable Cities
Gillian Gaynair, Mark Treskon, Joseph Schilling, Gabi Velasco
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In this report, the Urban Institute examines the policy and practice dimensions of Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC), a national initiative focused on reviving shared civic assets—parks, libraries, plazas, recreational centers, and more—into places that have the power to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development.

We looked specifically at RCC’s approach to civic asset investment in the initiative’s demonstration cities of Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia, and drew insights and core lessons from them that can be applied by other cities across the country eager to reimagine their civic spaces. Based on document review, interviews, consultations, and a two-day convening with RCC stakeholders and participants, our report identifies several key takeaways, including the following:  

  • By focusing on a collection of civic assets—rather than a single public space—and on achieving key social, economic, and environmental outcomes, cities can fundamentally shift how they revitalize shared public places. This approach leads to cross-silo, collaborative leadership, more strategic operations, and greater innovation.
  • Achieving a shared vision for reimagining assets systemically and inclusively requires collaborative leadership from various sectors, departments, and disciplines, as well as local residents.
  • Prototyping and cocreating the design, programming, and revitalization of public spaces—with everyone from frontline staff to neighborhood residents—builds support and stewardship of the assets and informs permanent investments.
  • Continuous learning and reflection, aided by systematically tracking outcomes, helps build more flexible and vital civic assets that lead to equitable social change.

We also recommend several strategies for cultivating local systems change that other cities can keep top of mind as they invest in public assets for social, environmental, and economic change.

  • Focus not just on placemaking but “placekeeping,” the long-term management of public spaces, to support local workforce development and wealth building to sustain civic commons investments.
  • Revamp community and economic development funding to include financing for civic asset revitalization and programming as infrastructure for equitable cities.
  • Advocate for policy change at all levels to support investment in public spaces. Elevate understanding of the social and economic benefits of revitalized public spaces to build support for sustainable resources.
  • Measure outcomes that matter. Collect and share data and stories with policymakers, so they have evidence of the social, environmental, and economic returns on investment in civic assets.
  • Institutionalize the reimagining of civic commons through annual budgets, program requirements, regulations, and ordinances, so the approach extends beyond one or two mayoral administrations.
Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Climate change, disasters, and community resilience
Tags Design and construction quality Community and economic development Parks and green space Environmental justice Planning for climate change
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab