Let’s just say that we at the Conservancy were overwhelmed by the flood of congratulations that poured in after we made our initial announcement about our participation in the Community Development Investments program. It was a thrilling moment for all of us and a testament to the reputation and recognition of ArtPlace America, especially in the Greater Philadelphia area. As we began to design our community forum and identify speakers, it was very exciting to now have an urgent reason to connect with artists and open space practitioners across the country who are engaged with creative placemaking at the community level. This initial convening was a fantastic initial opportunity to share and learn from those who we have been watching from afar, and who, before now, only tangentially had a connection to our world.
One challenge we faced, which ended up turning into a great opportunity, was that our second largest fundraising event was scheduled for the evening of our community forum and neither date could be changed. Our GLOW in the Park event is an evening outdoor gathering with live entertainment that showcases unique park sites. Attendees from the community forum were encouraged to attend GLOW in the Park, bringing a new audience to one of our key events, which draws 350+ attendees. While GLOW in the Park typically has surprise entertainment elements, this year’s event was extra special with glowing aerialist performers – a event feature inspired by our new leap into the creative realm.
Since those heady moments, we’ve been challenged to ask ourselves – do we really know our neighborhoods? The Conservancy is an organization that prides itself on our close ties with a multitude of local neighborhood park friends groups. But how do we reach neighborhoods that have not yet produced these local steward organizations? How can we work from the strengths of these places to assist a home-grown, sustainable presence that is strongly bonded with other neighborhood institutions? We are searching for artists who can work on this granular level and help generate this needed momentum so that every park functions as the community anchor is should be. As a citywide not-for-profit, we have to be selective and strategic about where our resources can be applied. With over 10,000 acres to consider we know we need to know where impact can be maintained and have the catalytic effect we seek.
As we begin to select the initial investments we make as a part of the CDI program, there are numerous inspirations that fuel our work and help us pinpoint how we can make change through the lens of parks. The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Raj Chetty, a Professor of Economics at Stanford University found that “where one grows up is the most important determinant of one’s future chances of moving upward on the economic ladder.” While this seems intuitive to people who are steeped in community development, there’s nothing like an Ivy League study with rock solid data to drive the point home and remind us of the urgency of lifting up areas where investment has lagged and the public realm suffers. You are, to some extent, where you grew up. We need to make those places, especially the civic realm, one of pride, dignity, beauty and peace.