Philly’s public space projects increasingly include artists who help create new conversations about change, helping us see familiar places anew. At Hatfield House, a historic building at a gateway to Strawberry Mansion, neighbors have been coming together through artistic experiences and community discussions with an assist from artists-in-residence Amber Art and Design. It is not a product-driven or decorative creative process, but a transformative vehicle for organizing and building power.
Prioritizing creativity helps emphasize the common currency of imagination. That can be instructive for project partners who need to learn the culture of a place early on, while opening up new ways for neighbors to talk about the future. More projects would benefit from social-practice artists who embed in change processes, particularly in the earliest stages.
When a neighborhood hasn’t seen civic investments in decades, public space projects might not be where residents might want to spend new money first. But these projects can be effective catalysts for communities to address a broader set of issues. But that work can’t be on neighbors alone. Project partners, particularly high-capacity nonprofits or city agencies, should plan and budget for parallel-track work: one to advance the project and another that directly supports neighbors as they organize around near-term needs by helping make new connections to resources and organizations.
In East Parkside, for example, Centennial Commons is phased, which gives time to test collaborative ideas and build community capacity. Project partners and neighborhood organizations are working together to support community-driven programs around public health and urban sustainability, including tree plantings, green neighborhood economy workshops, and the Parkside Fresh Food Fest in summer. It’s a holistic and sustained approach to community development that leverages the public space investment toward multiple, interconnected goals, and is helping build trust.