At a press briefing in March, a member of Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild team described the ambitions of the $500-million project as “not just physical improvements” for the city’s universe of parks, rec centers, and libraries, but also, improving the “diversity and inclusion” of the building trades, along with stimulating “community engagement” in neighborhoods. Out of the three transformative goals that comprise Mayor Kenney’s Rebuild initiative, the least well defined among them is community engagement.
In presenting the Kenney administration’s proposed organizational structure for Rebuild a couple months ago, community engagement appears to be a bubble floating off to the side, with an as-yet unclear relationship to other pieces of the proposal. And yet, to hear the administration tell it, the community engagement goals of Rebuild might have the most far-reaching implications for Philadelphia, perhaps even more than the capital improvements. The administration wants to establish a playbook that can be honed and tailored for improving how the government interacts with constituents in the long term, well beyond Rebuild’s estimated seven-year run.
“Rebuild is the sharpest point, cutting the way forward,” said Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis. “But we hope that the framework and values that Rebuild will establish and work through will then inform this administration’s viewpoint and aspirations around civic engagement.”
Passing out flyers at the neighborhood block party and attending civic-association meetings are no longer sufficient outreach methods for city halls across the country. Finding meaningful forms of community engagement has been thrust to the forefront of public projects everywhere, according to a recent white paper [pdf] on civic infrastructure investments published by PennPraxis:
Experts and elected officials regard community engagement measures as obligatory, at the very least, and at best, they use them as central parts of their decision- making processes. Related fields, including public health and education, are developing sophisticated engagement methods, too. Civic engagement is no longer an option, an enhancement, or an add-on to planning and design processes. Innovation, exploration, and evaluation are needed now more than ever.
According to DiBerardinis, who is often credited as the visionary behind Rebuild, the administration wants to harness the excitement that naturally surrounds a major capital improvement, then bottle up some of that energy to cultivate enduring stewardship of those sites. “We want to have a conversation with the neighborhood about their capacities, to ask them what are the skillsets that they need to make your community more whole,” said DiBerardinis. In other words, the administration wants to make a long-term investment in the people who could help maintain, populate, and advocate for these sites.
Naturally, the city says it would lean heavily on Council members and “project users” — the nonprofits that would oversee the improvements on parks and rec sites and award the contracts to work on them — to take the lead on engagement strategies. After project users are chosen, but before any plans for capital improvements are approved, these nonprofits would be expected to demonstrate how they’ve satisfied engagement efforts with communities surrounding each site, and how the capital plans and future programming reflect community interests. (That is, assuming the administration’s proposed structure holds up in Council.)
“The engagement process is about talking to the people that live around and use the site to validate that information, identify other issues, understand the community’s challenges with and aspirations for the site, and develop a set of proposed improvements based on that information,” said David Gould, deputy director of community engagement and communications for Rebuild. By engaging communities at the outset, and developing projects around their professed needs and preferences, the administration’s hope is that members of these communities will feel a greater sense of ownership stake in individual sites and become long-term advocates and stewards.
Overtures from the administration about stimulating community buy-in haven’t won over critics. Council President Darrell Clarke (who, thus far, has been the chief public critic of Rebuild) raised his concerns about the engagement portion of Rebuild during this year’s budget hearings, while addressing Rebuild Executive Director Nicole Westerman: “You could put out 1,000 flyers, right, and it’s the same 20 people that come, because they’re the ones that want to be engaged,” Clarke said. “You put the money in the facilities and the people will come.” In other words, Clarke argued the act of infusing more money into civic assets would itself stimulate demand organically, much more than deliberately deploying resources toward this end.
Clarke’s points aren’t lost on the Rebuild team in their talking points. “You have community members who have served on advisory councils or volunteered at sites for 10, 20, 30, 40 years — in spite of the state of the facility,” said Gould. “We need to respect and build on the dedication and commitment that residents have shown over these facilities in the long term.”
At the same time, the administration says that it will pursue non-traditional forms of outreach aimed at lowering the barriers to participation for people who don’t regularly interact with these sites. Utilizing art projects will be one such soft-power strategy. “We think about arts in relation to Rebuild not only in terms of static sculptures, but also how to bring people into these sites” said Kira Strong, deputy director of design and construction for Rebuild. For example, community design challenges that could add some color to the bunker-style entranceways of the 1950s-era rec centers and libraries. Or, having kids tinker with puzzle pieces (of a gymnasium, of a computer lab, of a foyer) to create a diagram hat could inform some of the physical design choices for these rehab projects. Activating community interest in these sites doesn’t have to take on the formalities of a charette.
The Rebuild team wants to leave room to tailor engagement approaches to specific sites and communities. The vision and experience of the nonprofit project users will be key in each instance. “One of the advantages of working with nonprofits is that they have different perspectives on how to do this,” said Gould.
In neighborhoods with sizable immigrant populations, the administration says that it wants to reduce the language and cultural barriers to community participation in Rebuild. There may be opportunities for oral-history projects in areas around Rebuild improvements. To hear it from the administration, it’s all about starting conversations — why some residents use these sites, why others don’t, how they could evolve — that will pay dividends over time. DiBerardinis wants these conversations, in turn, to inform how city departments equip their staff to sustain engagement in perpetuity. “Another new feature is to then ask what are the capacities that city staff need to live in this new world of high-level civic engagement?”
This outreach will do more than just inform what improvements are made at Rebuild sites — say, whether residents want to prioritize basic fixes to air-conditioning at a library or spend the dollars on something more creative, says the administration.
“It’s extending the qualities of a real relationship between the government and its citizens,” said DiBerardinis. “We’ll try to engage citizens at that level of a real relationship — it is emotional, it has passion, it has trust, it has expectations.” In fostering these relationships, many of them brand-new ones, the administration’s hope is that they’ll inspire residents to think more imaginatively about their public facilities, building trust, and helping forge relationships with the city to realize those aspirations.
A lot of the details are sketchy right now. For all the talk about what this engagement will look like, little to none of it has taken place (no surprise, given that the funding for Rebuild remains up in the air and the first round of sites has not been announced). DiBerardinis spoke about the high-level goals of Rebuild’s engagement, such as his desire to create a data-driven metric (similar to former Mayor Michael Nutter’s Greenworks index) to keep track of the city’s record on civic engagement over time. But just how engagement will be measured remains to be determined, and it might not be a one-size fits all set of benchmarks. The same could be said of a number of ideas surrounding engagement, such as Rebuild creating paid “ambassador” positions in neighborhoods to serve as point-people for engagement, which Gould characterized as “still under development.”
This lack of definition has given pause to some members of Council. Councilwoman Cindy Bass took the step of creating the 8th District Rebuild Community Engagement Committee, which will be comprised of residents and leaders in her district and will make recommendations for site improvements, in part because the Councilwoman felt a void existed in the administration’s engagement plans. “I’ll tell you, if we hadn’t started doing these Rebuild briefings, they [the administration] would have already had shovels in the ground at this point, and people wouldn’t have even know about it,” Bass said, during a recent briefing on Rebuild with the Philadelphia NAACP. (Gould says that the administration has shared its engagement presentation and plans with individual Council members, as well as in meetings with organizations like parks friends groups, rec advisory councils, and the Philadelphia Association of CDCS.)
On Monday, the City Council chambers will be crowded for a hearing on the legislation that funds and outlines Rebuild. Despite members’ public jockeying, Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. thinks the administration and the dissenting voices in Council aren’t very far apart. “I think it’s close. I have concerns about details, but I know that Jim Kenney is a man of good faith,” Jones said of the current legislation, which is expected to receive changes by way of amendments. “I’ve been a part of nine budgets. None of them got resolved until the last two days.”
As for how much the engagement portion of Rebuild will cost? “We don’t have a total budget for community engagement yet since we’re still working through some of the details,” Gould wrote in an email to PlanPhilly.
To grasp what Rebuild engagement efforts might look like, the administration points to current outreach efforts underway at Parks and Recreation (PPR) and the Free Library.
Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell has drawn lessons from her time as director of Fairmount Park conservancy working on Reimagining The Civic Commons, an $11-million endeavor funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation to transform five public spaces in the city while building high levels of engagement among stakeholders at each project site. “The Civic Commons Initiative has helped our thinking around Rebuild, in terms of how we will work with partners, and the whole concept around investing in existing infrastructure,” Ott Lovell said.
During Rebuild, Ott Lovell says that PPR will look to establish new parks’ friends groups (they’ve recently released a toolkit towards this end), but also, strengthen existing ones. Currently, PPR is pursuing an extensive mapping project that will list every community group that PPR works with in each geographic region of the city. “Something that goes deeper than RCOs,” she said.
Over the last few years, the Free Library has significantly reworked its public-facing engagement approaches. They’ve borrowed strategic principles from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. In fact, the Free Library has been a laboratory for new community-engagement tactics — like hiring community organizers, rather than career librarians, to lead this work — that will be looked at for expansion in Rebuild. And if the Free Library is a barometer, there’s a hunger to get involved.
“This frustration that national and state government isn’t functioning well, people want to have impact where they can see it — on a local level,” said Lynn Williamson, the Free Library’s chief of neighborhood libraries. “It’s serendipity that this is happening at the right moment.”