Over the past four years and across 10 cities, Lynn Ross of Spirit for Change Consulting has helped reimagine our public spaces for increased engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development. A key lesson: co-creation is the only way forward.
For more from Josh Cohen, read the framework for Leadership Upside Down today!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Ross: Lynn Ross
Cohen: Well-meaning leaders may pursue quick wins, but at what cost? If we really want to reimagine how we use our public space, we can only do what my guest today, Lynn Ross, suggests, move at the speed of trust. How you build that trust is key. Find out how coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: My guest today is Lynn Ross. Lynn is the founder and principal of Spirit for Change Consulting where she works nationally and across sectors to create and sustain equitable policies, practices, and places. She has also worked at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Welcome to The Movement, Lynn.
Ross: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Cohen: Let’s start here by just maybe giving us an overview of your firm, Spirit for Change Consulting.
Ross: My work is really focused on equity, so how do we embed deep equity into plans, into programs, into policies, and importantly how do we embed that equity into the organizations that are driving those plans and policies. So the actual work takes a number of formats. So, for example, for the last two years I’ve been leading on behalf of the Knight Foundation a national demonstration on public spaces called Reimagining the Civic Commons where we’re working now in 10 communities as of this May to really reimagine our public spaces and reimagine them for equity, to be intentionally welcoming, to be diverse, to be sustainable.
My work also involves working directly with cities. So I recently finished an engagement with the City of Akron in which we were really looking to create a new Office of Integrated Development that brings together planning, economic development, recreation and parks, and economic opportunity in a way that, again, is about embedding deep equity into city government, in this case the city government of a legacy city so that they are doing their internal work around equity in order to do their external work supporting equity from a place of real moral and budgetary authority when they’re working with their communities.
Cohen: Wow. Yeah. No, I think that’s obviously really, really important to be able to kind of give that—to kind of develop that expertise within governments so that they can kind of do this well. So you mentioned this Reimagining the Civic Commons. And, I guess, the thought that immediately pops to mind is that, you know, the last several months, I guess since probably March there has been a huge focus on the civic commons for different reasons. Right? We had COVID where folks where saying, “Hey, we don’t want to be inside. We need exercise.”
Maybe we can’t get access to as much exercise or, you know, open spaces we may like, and so a lot of cities have been thinking about how do we make streets open. That’s certainly been a topic of conversation I’ve had from several guests on the podcast. And then, of course, we’ve had the racial justice protests that have also been taking place in the civic commons as well to protest the murder of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and others. So, I guess, I’m just kind of curious kind of, like, to maybe tie together that Reimagining the Civic Commons to some of these very salient, you know, recent events.
Ross: So, you know, Reimagining the Civic Commons actually started in 2016. And our premise was a simple one, which was, again, can we look at primarily existing public spaces. And so let me just define what we mean by public spaces. Right? So certainly parks and open space, but we’re also talking about streets, sidewalks, waterfronts, trails, any of those third spaces that are in the public realm.
Could we reimagine those spaces as being intentionally welcoming and intentionally equitable? Could we do it through the lens of creating value for residents, for existing small business owners surrounding those spaces? Could we think about these spaces as places of environmental stewardship? Could we think about the planning and design and maintenance of these spaces in a way that was decidedly participatory in terms of engagement so that residents are not just thought of as users of these spaces but actually the co-creators of these spaces? So that was the premise that we went into.
And, frankly, we didn’t know if there was a there there when we started. And so that’s why we call it a demonstration. And we started that demonstration in five places initially across the country. So Akron, Ohio was one of them; Chicago, Memphis, Philadelphia, and Detroit were our original five cities. And the work of Civic Commons looks different in each of those places because, again, it needs to be authentic to the people and the places in which the work is taking place. And so what we’ve learned from that work that, I think, is very relevant for the moment that we find ourselves in collectively today is that co-creation is the only way.
There is no way to have equitable public spaces when you are not working hand in hand with the people who know that space best, love that space best, have the most experience with that space. And those are the residents of that community. And so if you go in with an approach of co-creation, co-design, and ultimately co-stewardship, that is ultimately going to lead to more equitable results. The other thing, I think, we have learned—and, I think, this pertains to all these conversations about, like, to move quickly to open streets—the reality is when we’re thinking about public spaces or, frankly, anything that we are planning and designing, we can only move at the speed of trust.
So if you are truly working hand in hand with community residents and other stakeholders, and they tell you, “This is moving too fast,” or, “This doesn’t feel right,” or, “We’ve heard this all before. What is different?” you need to really take that to heart and listen to it. And that principle has just really been core in all of our cities for civic comments. We move at the speed of trust with our residents because we trust them, and we want them to trust us in doing this work, because ultimately these spaces are theirs.
Cohen: Wow. So I love that, “We can only move at the speed of trust.” I think that is just amazing. Like, I love just how simple and clear that is. And I love that you even have a clear kind of definition of it. Like, if someone says, “Hey, this doesn’t feel right to me or it feels like we’re moving to fast,” you’re like, “Whoa, whoa; we don’t have it yet.” Right?
Cohen: How do you build that? Right? I mean, like, so you obviously—you went into each of these communities. Like you said, they’re all different, so you kind of have to approach it slightly differently because they’re made up of different folks, they’re made up of different communities and their needs. How do you actually build that trust?
Ross: So it takes time, and that’s the first thing everybody involved has to understand. So let me talk a little bit about the Civic Commons structure, because I think a lot of people think of this as being just, you know, funded by national funders and so, you know, we’ve got this sort of top-down approach. And that’s not the case. So certainly we’re providing some of the resources, but the work is really led on the ground. So there are on-the-ground teams of leaders in each of these cities. Residents are on the core leadership team, so residents are a part of the core decision-making process for Civic Commons. And then you can think of the engagement as sort of concentric circles. Right? You’ve got the core team that’s sort of, you know, driving the core project; and then they’re reaching out to, you know, various neighbors, other stakeholders, and the reach gets pretty large as you start to continue this work.
And so, you know, when we think about moving at the speed of trust, it’s really starting at literally who is at the table. Right? Do we have folks driving the Civic Commons work in the community that are actually reflective of the neighborhood and that are there with the right orientation to understand the core values of this work? So it starts there. And then it’s also about having the flexibility to move at the speed of trust. Right? So from a funder’s perspective the funds are quite flexible. You know, certainly this is a grant-funded project in part, but we’re quite flexible in the timing, in the way those funds are used. And that was by design, because we wanted the ability for teams to be as responsive as possible to local conditions and to what they were hearing.
So, you know, when we had teams on the ground who wanted to do some prototyping, we said, “That’s great, but let’s make sure that that prototyping is done, again, in very close partnership with residents and other stakeholders but also in a way where they understand if you don’t like this it’s gone.” Right? But if you do like it, we can tie this to a longer process and start talking about longer-term investment.
Cohen: You mentioned trust and time. You know, trust takes time, and then this whole process to do it right takes time. And then you mentioned this kind of connection between having funding that kind of is in line with that timeframe. Is this something where you’re starting to see people acknowledge that if we’re going to do this well we’re going to have to, A, put up the dollars, B, give it enough time to do it right? Because I feel like there’s this tension always between kind of quick wins to kind of have something done before the next election but, you know, some of the work you’re doing—you know, obviously you mentioned it started in 2016—this takes time. This is not something you can just, like, do in the span of the next city council election. How are you balancing that pressure, I guess?
Ross: Well, so, I think, what we have to remember here is when you’re talking about transformation of public spaces, of a neighborhood, of a corridor, whatever the case may be, that transformation is never going to fall neatly in line with a grant period or an election cycle or even a news cycle. Like, just get rid of that thought in your mind.
And more importantly than that, get clear on what your values are. Because if your values are really we’re trying to, again, work in lockstep with residents, really understand both their needs and their desires and recognize that you’re going into a place with history, every neighborhood has hopes and dreams. It also has trauma; it also has a need for healing. And if you are not willing to participate in a process and co-design a process and fund a process in a way that recognizes those basic facts, I would suggest that you not only not be in that process but maybe find a different line of work.
Cohen: Yeah. As I think through our communities and all the different kind of actors that are involved in this, you know, I’m sure that’s what makes this challenging. Right? Because you could be coming to this process with very clear sense of values and mission, and then you’ve got some other folks who are coming in here that maybe have some conflicting goals. Maybe it’s economic interests that are interested in building some new apartments or whatever. And so, you know, cities are trying to attract development and jobs all the time. Have you had to navigate those competing interests in this process as well?
Ross: Yeah. I mean, I certainly think if you talk to any of the members of our local teams, they can give you stories as long as both arms of trying to balance those competing interests. I think, what has helped us and the lesson I would share with other communities who are thinking about a process like this is to really start with those core values. So if you talk to any member of the Civic Commons team across our original five cities and now our expanded to 10 cities, they can tell you what our four core values are. And those four core values drive decision-making.
And so when you have a competing interest or just a different interest—I wouldn’t even say necessarily competing, just a different interest—that comes into play, it makes it easier to have a conversation because we can very clearly outline, “Well, these are our four values, and this is the way we operationalize those values in this work. Let’s talk about whether or not what you want to do can align with these values.” If it can’t, then the answer is going to be no, but if we can work together and get to that alignment, then we might actually create something really special that is actually beneficial to the community and something the community desires. But if we can’t get to that alignment, then we have to have a different conversation.
Cohen: Sure. So what are those four values that you use to really drive the work that you’re doing?
Ross: Sure. So they are civic engagement, so, you know, can we have really participatory, authentic engagement throughout the life of this work from that co-stewardship, you know, to all the way back to the co-design and the co-creation of the work; environmental sustainability, so, you know, if we’re going to make these investments in these public spaces, can we also be thinking about hitting that triple bottom line of making sure that we’re building in access to transit and walkways, can we build in green infrastructure as we’re making these changes; value creation, we know that making these investments is going to create additional value, and we do not want to be in the business of gentrifying and causing displacement.
So as we think about the value that we are putting into these reimagined spaces, can we think about mechanisms that create that value first for the residents and business owners who are already there and create a mechanism for the reinvestment over time into these public spaces so that they have this continuing resource for their reimagined civic commons? And then the fourth core value is around socio-economic mixing. So can we, again, really think about a place that is intentionally welcoming, that recognizes how dynamic the neighborhood is and will continue to be, but that has equity at the core of the operation of the design, of the programming, even of the stewardship?
So those are the four core values that we’ve had from the outset of the work. And, you know, they not only drive the work on the ground, but they even drive the way we measure the work. So we have a pretty extensive metrics framework as well. And when you look at the organization of that, it is organized around those four outcome areas. So it has created a shared language, a shared set of values, a way to talk about the outcomes that we’re trying to drive across a very diverse set of communities and act within those cities.
Cohen: Well, and I think, you know, those were kind of very clear and straightforward kind of values that everyone can get behind. The 10 cities that you partner with on this project, do they supplement those four values with any of their own kind of what I’d call local values? Because I could see maybe some communities, again, going to that very kind of community-driven part of this, might have aspects of their community they want to integrate into this process that might make this even more connected. Or is that kind of built into that first value you mentioned about the engagement?
Ross: I think it’s really built in not only to the civic engagement but really to all four. And so, I think, what you see happening at the local level is it’s how those are operationalized—right—that that’s where you start to get the local flavor. It’s how the team comes together; it’s how the work progresses. That’s where you start to see the community really having influence over how those values play out in their particular community.
I mean, what a number of folks have said to us over the years is that those values have given them a new language to also figure out a new way of working locally, and that way of working certainly starts with the Civic Commons work but then branches out to other things. So, you know, I mentioned earlier the work I had done with the City of Akron and the Office of Integrated Development. Well, that project happened because Civic Commons happened. So Civic Commons inspired local government to think about a different way of working that was values driven and that was equity focused. And so, you know, there’s a lot of connective tissue when you look at the work that Akron Civic Commons has been doing and the strategic framework plan that we developed for the Office of Integrated Development.
Cohen: Wow. Have there been any stories or examples as you’ve gone through the four years of this project? Have there been any particular stories that really have just stayed with you?
Ross: Oh, there are so many of those stories. I mean, one of the best aspects of this work, to me, has been getting to know all of these resident leaders across these communities, many of whom I may have admired their work from afar, but to get to work closely with them has been tremendous. But, you know, I think about someone like Mike Dones in Detroit who started the MoFlo garden. So this is the Detroit neighborhood that Civic Commons works in. The Fitzgerald neighborhood has a tremendous amount of vacancy. And the core of that work is really figuring out how to reimagine that vacancy actually as an asset. So what can we do with this land that returns it to public use, that returns it to something that is positive for residents?
And Mike was actually ahead of the Civic Commons work where he just sort of took over a couple of lots near his home that had long been vacant and made this absolutely beautiful community garden, I mean, just gorgeous. And it’s that kind of use that really inspired what became the strategic plan for this neighborhood. It’s like, “Look; we don’t have to just let this land lie fallow.” It can actually be a great use to someone like Mike who actually really loves agriculture and gardening but is then also providing this public service to his neighbors who are welcome to come in and grab some tomatoes or grab some snap peas to supplement their dinner or their lunch that day. And so, you know, that’s one example.
I also think about someone like Tonetta Graham in the City of Philadelphia who works in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood where Civic Commons also did some work to sort of return this long hidden reservoir, again, back to public use. When we think about public leadership, I think too often we sort of limit our thinking to people who are elected or appointed. And I would ask us to broaden that definition. There are many leaders in all of our communities who are doing public good, who are doing public service, and they’re not elected or appointed.
And so, you know, I have great respect for those that are, but really, really have enjoyed getting to meet people like Mike and Tonetta and many, many others who are really in love with their community and want to see their community do well and not only have that desire but will literally go and create a garden or, you know, start a CDC to do it. That’s public service too, and that’s one of the great things that I love about Civic Commons, is we’ve been able to shine more of a light on that and pass the mic to them so they can tell their own stories.
Cohen: I love that. And I love even in my mind where I’m going with that is just the imagination and inspiration something like that can unlock in a community. Right? When you see taking over either the overgrown reservoir or the empty lot and saying, like, “All right. We’re going to change that,” and let people see that it is possible, I think, is truly great. And also to your point about them not being elected or appointed leaders, it’s infinitely more scalable. Right? I mean, this is—every single one of us has that inside of us, you know, it just kind of needs to be unlocked a little bit.
Ross: Yeah. And I would say it’s actually less about the unlocking. Right? I mean, I think part of it is I’m an urban planner. And, you know, I’ll speak to my fellow planning brothers and sisters and designers and urbanists. It is more about us listening and throwing the doors open to what can be a very black box process that we operate. And we operate it that way, frankly, for our comfort. So it’s really about us unlocking our own biases and, frankly, some of our own training about how things should be done.
But there is talent in every community. In every human being there is talent and creativity. Sometimes what it needs is a bigger platform; they need the microphone; they need some money; they need the actual time and space. But that’s not what needs to be unlocked; it is the systems that sort of form around that leadership and, frankly, oppress it. That’s what needs to be unlocked and dismantled.
Cohen: Well, what’s the future of this Reimagining the Civic Commons project? Where do you want it to go?
Ross: So we just expanded to five additional cities to join this learning network. So this is really in this case about the peer exchange amongst these cities to drive the work. And, you know, our ambition has always been that we want to see every community reimagining their civic commons. And so to that end, you know, we have tried to share in real time the lessons that we’re learning, both what’s working but also what’s not working. We’ve tried to share that as quickly as we can.
You know, we’ve also tried to share tools like around our metrics, so we have a do-it-yourself metrics toolkit out there, so if folks want to actually start to measure around those four value areas that I mentioned, you can actually do that. We’ve created that for you. But also if you want to read stories from some of the leaders that I just mentioned, we have a great publication on Medium that’s available where we’re telling stories in essentially in real time about how the work is progressing in each of these cities, what we’re learning, what we’d like to learn. But really all of this is really to inform this larger reimagining.
I think, one thing has been made clear by the moment that we’re in right now for more people, and that is that public spaces really, really matter. And maybe you were taking them for granted in the before times, but, you know, a new light has been shown on how important these spaces are but also how deeply inequitable they are. And so, you know, if the Civic Commons work can help inspire more communities to think critically about public spaces as critical civic infrastructure, to think about the power of the commons to have equitable outcomes, deeply equitable outcomes, that will be sort of “job well done” for us, if we are able to inspire more places to have that reckoning and then pick up some of the tools that we’ve developed, make them their own, and really deliver maybe for the first time ever a set of public spaces in a public realm that truly welcomes, is truly safe for all, and really recognizes all the uses for public spaces, frankly, including protests.
Streets are for protest; that’s okay. That is part of the public realm too. So that, to me, is where I think this work is going. That’s our aspiration, and we hope that communities will use this time to really reflect on their past practices, sort of unlearn some behavior, and really think critically about what their civic commons could be doing if they were working in a different way.
Cohen: Where can folks learn more about the work you’ve done either with Reimagining the Civic Commons or with your consulting group?
Ross: Sure. So for Civic Commons you can visit CivicCommons.us. It will also link you to our social media as well as the Medium publication that I mentioned. To learn more about my work, you can visit SpiritForChangeConsulting.com, and there is also a contact form if you want to get in touch with me directly.
Cohen: Awesome. Lynn, this has been awesome to hear from you, and certainly of what—you know, the big thing I’m pulling away from is this, “We can only move at the speed of trust.” I love just how simple and important that is, and I think that really grounds a lot of the work that you’re doing to help communities around the country reimagining civic commons. So thank you so much for joining me on The Movement podcast.
Ross: Thanks for having me.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
For more from Josh Cohen, read the framework for Leadership Upside Down today!