In Philadelphia last week, the Gehl Institute convened Act Urban—a global group of leaders and practitioners in the field of the civic commons. After three days of fieldwork and observation, expert presentations and intense discussion, I was asked, along with other panelists to sum up what we’d heard and what the challenges are for this emerging field going forward. Here’s an abbreviated summary of what I had to say.

Philadelphia's Chinatown. Credit: Mumu Matryoshka, Flickr
Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Credit: Mumu Matryoshka, Flickr


Like most of the attendees I spoke with, I found it hopeful and encouraging to see the breadth and impact of the projects underway in Philadelphia. As a regular visitor to the city over the past couple of decades, it’s evident that change is very much in the air, and that in important respects, the fabric of the city is beginning to be re-woven in ways that promises to bring Philadelphians closer together. Over the course of three days we saw numerous examples of a range of institutions re-thinking their roles and facilities to promote greater civic involvement and to cross, if not erase, long-established boundaries that divided the community.

From the presentations and discussions, we know that what’s happening in Philadelphia is starting to happen in other cities as well, both in the US and in other countries. All of this is exciting and encouraging.

But, in my view, three big challenges stand directly ahead.

They are the three “M’s”: Moving from micro to macro; Markets; and Metrics. I’ll address each of them in turn.

Micro to macro

Economists routinely make a distinction between micro-economics and macro-economics. Micro is the observation of a single facet of the economy. It’s about learning from and describing the nature of a small, bounded and usually partial segment of the economy. Macroeconomics is the converse—it is the economy of the globe and nations, about how all kinds of small actions and activities add up at a large scale.

The field of civic engagement is strongly grounded in its “micro” phase. It’s about learning how to craft individual pieces of the public realm so that they function better, whether that’s parks, streets, libraries, swimming pools, or other public spaces. This is a logical starting place; it’s easier to mobilize, secure resources, make progress, learn from mistakes and move forward with small scale investment. And the success stories—many of which we heard described in Philadelphia—help inform practice and spread the message about the opportunities and merits of civic engagement.

Pop-up protected bike lane, Minneapolis. Credit: nickfalbo, Flickr
Pop-up protected bike lane, Minneapolis. Credit: nickfalbo, Flickr


But at some point, the civic commons has to explicitly aim to achieve scale. Instead of being exceptional and innovative, changing and challenging the status quo, it has to come to define the regular way of doing things. This is the challenge of moving from micro to macro, of moving from projects to policies and institutions, and moving from tactical urbanism to a broader strategy.

Philadelphia’s decision to impose a tax on soda and to use the proceeds to help fund a multi-year bond to pay for capital improvements to parks, libraries and public spaces is an example of how to transition from micro to macro. Not only does this measure provide the resources to greatly increase the scale of activities, the funding mechanism—which is visible and broad-based—means that every citizen will know that they’re making a contribution, and that they have a stake in these investments.


The second “M” is markets. It may seem odd to invoke markets in the context of public space, but they matter a lot, and they’re telling us something important. When we speak of the civic commons and public realm, we tend to frame it as a largely government-led or public sector function. Municipal governments are primarily responsible for building, financing, operating and regulating public spaces. But viewed more closely, there’s an ambiguity and an interdependence between the public and private sectors on the ground in cities.

At the street level, great urban spaces are formed by mutually reinforcing public and private investments. Great streets, squares, and public spaces attract people, and the flow of people stimulates commerce. And the nearby presence of businesses—shops, bars, cafes, restaurants—reinforces the activity in the public realm. As we showed with our recent Storefront Index (which measures the number and concentration of customer-facing retail and service businesses in cities), the difference between an under-utilized park and an activated one is substantially explained by the presence and density of adjacent storefronts.

At a larger scale, it’s readily apparent that there’s a growing demand of great urban environments. Somewhat paradoxically, just as technology has, at least in theory, freed us from the need to be physically present in a particular place to work, or access information, or have easy access to a wide range of goods, people seem to be craving the opportunity to live in places that afford a wide range of opportunities for easy personal interaction. The rows of people in coffee shops, independently working at their laptop computers, signals a strong desire to be in the public realm, at the same time they are connected to the Internet.

Credit: brewbooks, Flickr
Credit: brewbooks, Flickr


Just as technology is freeing us from place, there’s a growing demand to live and work in cities. Well-educated young adults are disproportionately moving to cities. Companies that hire these workers are moving to cities as well. The rent premium for central locations relative to suburbs has increased sharply in the past decade. All of these trends are a sign that there’s strong market demand for urbanity. At City Observatory, we’ve called this “the shortage of cities” because the demand for urban space and urban living is increasing far faster than we’ve been able to increase the supply. And a key element of the supply of cities is the public realm that makes city living and city neighborhoods so appealing. So as we think about how to expand the civic commons and activate public spaces, we should do so with a clear recognition that this is something that the market demands.


My third “M” is metrics: how we measure the extent and activation of the public realm. The ability to measure the health and extent of public spaces and the activity that occurs within them is important both to designing great spaces, to moving from “micro” to “macro” and harnessing the growing market demand for the civic commons.

Many of the obstacles we face in promoting the public realm are due to the fact that we face a severe disparity in the kinds of things we measure. Some disciplines and some sets of investments have well-developed sets of metrics and copious statistics that make the strong case for their interests. This is very clear in the case of automobile transportation: every city has detailed measures of traffic volumes, vehicle speeds, vehicle delay times and the like. Almost no city has good data on the number of pedestrians, their convenience or comfort, or even good data on the use of parks or public spaces.

In public policy, it’s often the case that what counts is what gets counted. And the effect in the public realm is that great emphasis gets put on what we can count (the number and speed of vehicles moving through a place) and very little emphasis gets put on how many people actually use or inhabit spaces. In essence we often prioritize “traveling through” rather than “being in” urban environments.

The way to change this is to develop a range of metrics of the quality and use of public spaces. New data and new technology make possible a range of new metrics. In the past few years, Walk Score has emerged as a convenient, ubiquitous and easily understood tool for measuring the walkability of urban spaces. At City Observatory, we’ve developed the Storefront Index, which measure the number and concentration of customer-facing retail and service businesses that help frame walkable commercial neighborhoods. New technology lets us count the number of people walking in or using public spaces. We’re just in the infancy of these measures, but they can be useful tools for planning, and for elevating the health and use of the public realm in policy discussions.

Moving from exceptional innovation to commonplace adoption

One of the exciting things about visiting projects that are transforming neighborhoods and urban spaces is seeing the insight and creativity that designers, community groups and enlightened leaders have brought to bear on improving the public realm. Part of the sense of accomplishment from this kind of innovation comes from challenging the accepted norms, bending or negotiating the rules and doing something that hasn’t been done—or that people thought was impossible. While we should always continue to be innovative, the next big challenge for those with an interest in building cities by strengthening the public realm is to transform innovative breakthroughs into accepted, even commonplace practice. The keys to doing this will be to build on the visible evidence of success in particular projects, and use that to leverage institutional change: not breaking the rules for one project, but re-writing the rules for all projects. That’s why the three “M’s” are important: moving to system level change will require thinking about the “macro” rather than just the micro, harnessing the growing market demand for great urban places, and developing metrics that build a strong case for policy and investment.

Joe Cortright presented these remarks to the closing session of the Act Urban convening in Philadelphia on June 17, 2016. For more information about the Act Urban project, visit its website.