Street Level Advisors led a process for the John S. and James L. Knight foundation to evaluate a series of grants that the foundation has made to support the development of organizations focused on improving access to public space, and public life in American cities. The goal of this work was to connect and engage residents in their communities through more parks and public open spaces, bike and pedestrian lanes to enable people to connect, and programming that draws people together to share a common experience. This is an unusual focus for philanthropy and the Foundation wanted to know whether their investment was making a difference.
Street Level interviewed nearly 50 neighborhood leaders and volunteers in communities where the funded work was conducted, listening to community stakeholders and capturing their sense of whether and how the work impacted the communities. In addition to documenting traditional measures of impact such as increases in the level of local spending and the number of permanent policy changes, we identified meaningful impacts related to community voice, identity, the development of local leadership and organizational capacity. We found that even temporary ‘tactical urbanism’ type interventions (bike lanes, parklets, public events, etc.) could have a long-term impact. While the changes were not always lasting, we found that when the work was conducted in an inclusive and authentic way, local stakeholders reported lasting changes in community engagement. These creative public life projects seemed particularly likely to inspire new leaders and give them the confidence to undertake longer term efforts.