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Philadelphia utilizes community engagement to better inform plans for key public spaces

Philadelphia, PA, USA
CitizenLab

Government Champion

Business Improvement District

Cost

Zero upfront cost to local government

Project Status

Operational since 2022

At a Glance

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city realized its public spaces needed to better support small business recovery & community revitalization. Edit the City! (an urban planning collaborative) worked with city offices & used community engagement to reimagine Philadelphia's main streets, starting with South Street.

Problem Addressed

The pandemic left cities rethinking how their main streets are used and who they serve. In Philadelphia, unique economic and social challenges began to seep through the cracks of its main streets.

City officials and activists were left with a critical question: how could they reimagine main streets as public spaces to support small business recovery and community revitalization? And how could they capitalize on previous engagement efforts and initiatives that came out of the pandemic?

Edit the City!, an urban planning collective in Philadelphia, was awarded funding from the Knight Foundation to answer this question. Their goal was to enable the local residents, businesses, and visitors to guide the decisions of South Street Headhouse District (SSHD) - the local Business Improvement District (BID) - and of City Hall, so that lessons learned could translate into short-term improvements and long-term revisioning of more open streets and human-centred public space.

Edit the City! in Philadelphia, PA used/is using CitizenLab, a community engagement platform, to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

To accurately capture community feedback and ideas, the plan began with research of community context and preferences. The initiative worked with the SSHD to continue pandemic-fueled efforts such as parklets, pedestrian-only zones, and outdoor dining. After evaluating data, completing 6 months of weekly steering committee meetings, receiving 2,400 responses to a public safety survey about open streets, and hosting 3 virtual focus groups with business owners, a core theme emerged: South Street held sentimental value for stakeholders. With so many memories and experiences mapped to the street, displaying these human stories became crucial to sustaining the progress made in creating more human-centered streets during the pandemic.

To map these memories, Edit the City! decided to collect Love Letters to South Street. Community members were asked to detail a fond memory and mark it with the time and date. The team encouraged both online and offline participation, and eventually added all 70 collected stories to a virtual memory map using CitizenLab's platform.

Data gathered from Edit the City! and their Love Letters were analyzed and presented to the SSHD open streets steering committee during a co-creation online workshop hosted on CitizenLab's platform. It provided a data and engagement-driven first draft of recommendations for South Street's restructuring. As a result, Philadelphia has community-informed ideas for how to optimize its main street.

Outcomes

  1. Recommendation that the city establishes a regular meeting space to facilitate communication with district leaders so the community can further contribute to South Street's culture
  2. Initiatives centered around creating more art experimentation opportunities, like pop-ups in vacant storefronts and interactive installations like giant games
  3. Plans to add more free street and wall art to foster collaboration between local arts organizations and locally and/or nationally recognized artists
  4. Ideas to host walking tours along historical South Street markets to celebrate the street's unique history

Lessons Learned

  1. Utilizing multi-layered processes, including offline and online engagement, to reach residents is crucial to obtaining feedback representative of a community.
  2. Being flexible and ready to change your engagement and planning strategies as you go - and learn - is key. This is the best way to obtain accurate feedback.

Who Should Consider?

Cities and urban planners looking to capitalize on community feedback to shape and inform future initiatives.

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