It’s time for a check-up on how philanthropy supports public spaces. In a new report, Laura Trudeau, author of the report and former managing director of The Kresge Foundation's Detroit Program has delved into the financial health of public spaces, producing a comprehensive set of recommendations to keep up the momentum of the movement for great places. By highlighting successes, particularly centered around Detroit, the report identified the ingredients necessary in order to achieve sustained success in public spaces like the Detroit East RiverWalk and Campus Martius.
Focused on maintaining recent gains in public spaces, the report highlights how philanthropy can be a part of the movement, breaking down what’s essential to giving a place true staying power. The author is a long time collaborator and pioneer in place-focused philanthropy, and her new report identifies a trifecta of solutions behind every great place: an active role for the community to play in the “ecosystem” of public spaces; a collaborative organizational structure; and diverse financial support. Each of these pieces fits into the broader public spaces movement, transcending the physical nature of public space in order to look closely at the organizational forces that make them better for everyone.
An Ecosystem of Place
Some things haven’t changed: Trudeau maintains that success will require a balanced ecosystem of public spaces in which connectivity, community ownership, and participation are prioritized. After all, the strength of public spaces lies in their ability to convene different people and ideas, and likewise; “the transformative surge of public space creation and restoration comes from a diverse group of stewards with varying levels of resources.” The organizations that take part in the management of a space also determine its success. When these organizations are successful, it is because they have set common goals and equipped staff and volunteers to adapt to the ever-shifting nature of public space and the specific needs and desires of its users.
In addition, when a public space management organization goes beyond the regular management duties to “serve as a center for learning,” it can become a resource within a wider network of community assets. Rather than simply creating strategies that are “disconnected from the resources of networks and umbrella organizations that have expertise to offer,” organizations, like the public spaces they represent, must serve as convening forces. The conversations that come together under “umbrella” groups can make all the difference in getting fledgling projects off the ground.
Financing the Future
The report also makes recommendations for improving the funding models that sustain a public space. A diverse mix of philanthropic support, crowd funding, earned revenue, and public sector support is the best way to ensure continued enjoyment of a space and the activities and programming within it. The author highlights many cities that have found creative ways to fund their public spaces. Buffalo, NY, for example, enabled local power utilities to draw energy from Niagara Falls in order to pay for the revitalization of its waterfronts, while the Central Park Conservancy in New York City combines municipal funding with unique fundraising opportunities for its wide membership base to contribute, including by sponsoring a tree. Creating a funding plan that is as flexible as the space it supports is a surefire way to ensure its long-term adaptability and resilience.
PPS has also been examining how philanthropy can more effectively support public spaces. PPS recently convened the fourth Placemaking Funders Forum as an extension of Placemaking Week. The event generated recommendations for nurturing a growing network of placemaking funders, and it also marked the launch of the new Placemaking for Philanthropy program with PPS Senior Fellow Maria Adebowale.
In the end, the staying power of a public space reaches far beyond its physical features. Indeed, the long-term sustainability of a place depends on the level of connection, attachment, and funding it draws from the local community. As outlined in Trudeau’s timely and comprehensive report, little else matters if there is no public will to invest in a place. Creating a community-based network of public space advocates, focused on both collaborative organizational structures and connection with the philanthropic community, will be fundamental to sustained placemaking going forward.
This article is a part of a series on Placemaking for Philanthropy, in partnership with PPS Senior Fellow Maria Adebowale.