08 Feb How community engagement helped reimagine public spaces in Philadelphia
From urgent calls for racial justice in public spaces to the recovery of small businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s obvious that urban main streets face unique economic and social challenges. Against this backdrop, cities across the country have been piloting new approaches to people-centered main streets.
With support from the Knight Foundation, Edit the City! (a collaborative made up of THINK.urban, Connect the Dots, and Stae) had the opportunity to ask: how can we, in Philadelphia, collaboratively shape the future of urban main streets by building on improvements that were tested during Covid? By engaging small business owners, neighborhood residents, and visitors, the team co-created a more human-centered vision for the future design, programming, and overall feel of one of the most iconic main streets in the country: South Street.
Reimagining main streets as human-centered public spaces
During the pandemic, many communities were forced to rethink how main streets are used and who they serve. Across the country, the opportunity – and need – to reimagine streets as public spaces became apparent. A key question emerged: how can we collectively reimagine main streets as public spaces to support small business recovery and community revitalization?
In Philadelphia, the change in how main streets were used was visible in shifting commute patterns (with more people working from home and staying in nearby neighborhoods) and in ad-hoc, city-sponsored pilots to support temporary “streeteries” and “open streets”. Locally, Edit the City! saw this as an opportunity to learn from the current moment, document it and build on it – to better understand what was happening and what community stakeholders thought about it. In particular, the team’s goal was to enable the local residents, businesses, visitors and more to feed into decisions of South Street Headhouse District (SSHD)—the local Business Improvement District (BID) —and of City Hall so that lessons learned could translate into both short-term improvements and long-term revisioning of more open streets and human-centered public space.
Pedestrian Pilot on South Street
Phase 1: Initial documentation of community context and preferences
With existing programs for parklets, pedestrian-only zones, and outdoor dining turbo-charged by the pandemic, Edit the City! worked in tandem with SSHD to build on previous engagement efforts and document neighborhood context and community preferences for the future of the street.
The team built their initial findings on:
- Open data and other available digital information from the SSHD, the City of Philadelphia, and from other relevant entities such as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC)
- 6 months of weekly steering committee meetings and recommendations
- 2,400 responses to a public survey about open streets
- 3 virtual focus groups with business owners
One theme that emerged from this initial information gathering was the value placed by stakeholders on memories and experiences from South Street, especially on social experiences supported by an expanded public realm. If the community and civic decision makers were going to rally behind plans for more permanent people-centered changes to South Street, those human stories would need to be more visible.
Phase 2: Creative memory mapping and placemaking for public spaces
Encouraged by this key insight, the Edit the City! Team decided to reimagine data collection for the next phase of the project as qualitative storytelling and came up with a tailored, hybrid method of engagement: Love Letters. The Love Letters to South Street intervention asked residents, business owners, and visitors to share their memories of South Street in the form of love letters. “People’s stories about what’s valuable to them, about visiting the space, was what the community really resonated with” said Stephen Larrick of Stae.
Image of a Love Letter postcard
To map these memories, the team:
- Included both online and offline to make participation as easy as possible
- Hosted creative pop-ups (using a bike-consultation-cart!) to meet people where they were and collect stories in person: on sidewalks, during open streets weekend, and even during a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new plaza
- Raised awareness by tapping into their partners’ networks, with the SSHD and neighborhood association both sending updates to their listservs
- Added the 70 collected stories to a virtual memory map powered by CitizenLab’s online engagement platform
Ultimately, these two phases – data gathering and memory mapping – would both inform a set of recommendations for short-term tactical improvements and a longer-term vision for reshaping Philadelphia’s South Street for people, not cars.
Phase 3: From data and stories to action – connecting with decision makers
The results of Edit the City’s data-gathering efforts and of the Love Letters to South Street intervention were analyzed and presented to the SSHD open streets steering committee during a co-creation online workshop using CitizenLab’s platform. This workshop provided a data and engagement-driven first draft of recommendations for South Street as a more people-centered public space.
The way the data and stories were mapped geospatially also helped communicate the need for pedestrianization to City Hall’s leaders. Suddenly, decision makers could see themselves in the data through relatable stories that innovatively measured human experience and made the case for maintaining the elements that made them possible.
Mapping Love Letters to South Street
Recommendations and impact:
On next steps, based on insights gathered from their community engagement efforts, Edit the City has concretely recommended to:
- Keep the pedestrianization pilot going into 2022.
- Establish a regular meeting space, so the community can come together to contribute to South Street’s culture through frequent engagement and transparent access to district leadership.
- Create more art experimentation opportunities, such as pop-up installations in vacant storefronts and interactive installations such as giant games.
- Add more free street and wall art to bring in local and nationally recognized artists, in partnership with local arts organizations.
- Celebrate South Street’s history and uniqueness through wayfinding historical markers, such as a walking tour of the documented love letters collected during this project.
With so much quantitative and qualitative data to now point to, the team hopes that legislation for expanded open streets and streeteries will come from next policy conversations between the SSHD and City officials.
Learnings: Community engagement for more human-centered city design
In Philly, the case for continued community engagement couldn’t be clearer. By building a coalition of interested and involved business members and also engaging residents and visitors, the Edit the City! team was able to identify clear, data-driven recommendations for the city to move forward in its planning and budgeting.
Now, community engagement needs to become more commonplace for all key decisions, so that it’s built into the standard operating procedure of the city rather than only utilized for one-off projects. Based on the learnings from their South Street project, the Edit the City! team recommends:
- Multi-layered processes, suggesting that it is absolutely critical to develop multiple, tailored methods for reaching and engaging with different stakeholder types to truly meet people where they are.
- Making room for iteration and flexibility. Engagement processes should be nimble and flexible; this allows you to learn from what works and doesn’t, adjust, and iterate to try a better-fit method.
- Utilizing clarity and transparency in your approaches. Building trust for follow-through is imperative, and when you’re asking someone to contribute to any engagement project, it’s important to communicate what’s in it for them in a tangible way .
- Making space for hybrid engagement approaches. While hybrid processes require much more work, and it’s important to plan for additional touchpoints, they yield improved results and online-offline engagement is here to stay because of the greater impact it can produce.
Read more about how your city can improve public space with community engagement:
- 5 examples of placemaking in community engagement
- How co-created mobility makes cities more liveable
- Urban development guide for co-creating cities with digital community engagement tools