Reimagining the Civic Commons. An initiative of Kresge Foundation, Knight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, JPB Foundation

Movements have a language. We helped Reimagining the Civic Commons create theirs.

What is New York without its humming central library? Paris without les Tuileries? It’s tempting to think that world class civic assets (parks, libraries, community centers, and the like) are a symbol of a city’s success, but Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) proposes the opposite. RCC is a $40 million ‘bet’ that investing in civic assets is an effective way to improve social outcomes in cities. Dash Marshall has been advising the initiative’s leadership since the beginning, completing specific projects, such as A Possible Philadelphia and the work described below, in addition to providing ongoing advisory services.

RCC brings together more than fifty organizations in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia, backed by a consortium of the Rockefeller Foundation, Knight Foundation, JPB Foundation, and Kresge Foundation. A project with goals this ambitious, involving this many collaborators, and spread across such varying geographies is inherently complex. To help the team tell this story to their diverse stakeholders, we created a visual language that captures the essence of their work and its goals.

The visual language is purposefully simplified into a ‘Cliffs’ notes’ for urban and institutional change by using the metaphor of “before and after.” Each city participating in RCC has identified a handful of sites that they are using as the center for new activities, programing, and in some cases capital renovations. In the Before views a collection of public assets in each city are shown as separated islands.

Image of the "before" state

In the After view the same assets are now shown closer together—metaphorically, if not literally connected. Each site is represented by a small illustration that functions as an icon to key the readers attention to what sorts of changes can be expected, including depictions of people engaging in various activities that hint at RCC’s new approach to programming public spaces.

Image of the "after" state

In total the visual language is comprised of 40+ illustrations, all drawn in exquisite detail by Kelli Anderson. They’re presented above as part of slide decks, but are designed to be repurposed for websites, wayfinding, publications, or other materials.

Image showing all of the illustrated tiles

Each before/after condenses a complex set of changes, ambitions, and collaborations into a digestible format. It’s easy to see how places go through a transformation that’s physical because the changes are highly visual. But even more importantly, civic assets will be used in new ways and by new constituencies. This is indicated by the presence of people doing things, like this former stable in Chicago becoming a woodworking center.

Garfield in its "before" stateGarfield in its "after" state

People move from being isolated in their own bubbles in the Before condition, to taking part in a shared ‘circle of human concern’ in the After, a term borrowed from the work of john a. powell with deep respect.

Illustration showing isolated peopleIllustration showing people connected

A descriptive text key highlights the outcomes in four categories that are the motivating force behind Reimagining the Civic Commons: civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability, and value creation. Each of the key markers, such as ‘B’ below, start with one or more lines pulled from a rigorous set of 49 individual metrics that RCC is tracking during its three year initiative and describe the outcome using a ‘plain English’ example.

Each image is created from a logic of metrics that the RCC network is working towardGarfield in its "after" stateEach metric has a succinct text description

Finally, an important part of the RCC ‘recipe’ is deep collaboration between civic assets. This collaboration is visualized in the Before/Afters by representing the ‘logo salad’ that appears attached to so many multilateral efforts as a simple, flat list of partners. What happens when a library, the parks department, a local conservancy, and the mayor’s office are all working together as equals? A movement is sparked.

Sample list of partners

By communicating just enough depth across the different strategic pillars of RCC—civic assets, human centered design, outcomes based management, collaboration—these visuals provide a language for the initiative.

In each aspect of our collaboration with Reimagining the Civic Commons we have been exploring ways to tell a rich story of physical and institutional transformation happening at the same time. This effort continues our longstanding fascination with developing ways to make legible the invisible conditions and contexts that shape everyday life. Legibility is the first step towards redesign.