Bringing Place Back

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Place is back.  Across an array of sectors we are witnessing a renewed focus on “place” – on neighborhoods, cities, and regions.  Place-based strategies are evident in the Obama administration’s cross-agency efforts to coordinate land use, transportation, and environmental programs.  The nation’s leading foundations are launching place-based initiatives. And across the country actors from public, private, and the not-for-profit sectors are collaborating in efforts to improve places.

A focus on place was evident at last month’s CEOs for Cities strategy session convened in New York City.  Participants were “entrepreneurs of place” – a national network of leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors dedicated to building and sustaining the next generation of cities.  One conversation focused on the role of philanthropy in cities, led by representatives of national and community-based foundations.  A conclusion from the discussion was that national foundations are increasingly moving toward place-based efforts, including initiatives at the Ford, Knight, MacArthur, Kresge, and Rockefeller Foundations, to name a few.

The Boston Foundation’s Paul Grogan commented that “the tide is turning for philanthropy in cities.”  Suzanne Walsh with the Lumina Foundation noted that foundations have followed government, which also disinvested in place over time, but appears poised to reinvest.  And Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation suggested that an ecology of place is emerging where foundations are collaborating to leverage investments in neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

Later in the CEOs for Cities program, a cross-sector success story on improving place was displayed in a tour of New York’s High Line Park, 20 blocks of converted, elevated rail line in downtown Manhattan.  Through community leadership, city support, and philanthropic contributions, High Line Park opened in 2009 and has transformed a previously vacant, unused corridor into a public space that is used by thousands of people daily and generating significant residential and commercial development.

Of course, place isn’t really back, since places themselves never went anywhere. What’s returning is the renewed attention to place among some of the nation’s institutions and leaders, whether it’s the federal government, foundations, or cross-sector collaborations in regions and cities.  Rapson argued for the necessity of institutions moving in the same direction. “Philanthropy must adopt and drive a point of view that has the underlying support of government and other sectors.”  Grogan added that “there is nothing permanent about the success or failure of cities and places. Our nation’s institutions have to be actively engaged in helping prepare for what’s coming next.”