Dash Marshall




Reimagining the Civic Commons

An initiative of:

Kresge Foundation

Knight Foundation

Rockefeller Foundation

JPB Foundation


Kelli Anderson (Illustration)

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.

Illustration of before conditions

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.

Illustration of after conditions

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.

All of the illustrations

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.

A municipal stable without much activity... ..Becomes a place with new kinds of activities taking place

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.

People are isolated People share the same 'circle of human concern'

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.

Metrics in a spreadsheet Scene exhibiting the metric Text description of metric

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.

List of collaborating agencies at bottom of poster

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.

Final 'after' image Final 'after' image Final 'after' image Final 'after' image Final 'after' image Slideshow of five After views

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.