Final Knight Cities Challenge to leave lasting legacy of urban innovation

One of last year's Knight Cities Challenge winners was the City of Tallahassee's "The Longest Table". The Florida city's project sought to build "cross-community relationships with an expanded series of community conversations over meals in 100 homes". This year, 33 more projects were named winners. (City of Tallahassee)

Winners of the third Knight Cities Challenge have a knack for promoting urban innovation and civic engagement in some unlikely places — and with only minimal resources.

Bus stops, beaches and abandoned buildings are transformed into public gathering spots. A stodgy state house is re-imagined as a welcoming front porch, accessible to all.

These sorts of unconventional approaches to improving the liveability and governance of cities have made the competition a cornerstone of urban reinvention.

With Monday’s announcement of 33 winners from 19 cities for this year’s edition of what has been an annual contest, the Knight Foundation will close the book on what it describes as “a model of risk-tolerant grant-making”.

This is the third and final year of a USD 15 million urban experiment that prompted some 15,000 submissions. The proposals pushed the limits of creativity and capitalized on the rhythms and themes of inner-city life, such as hip-hop music and public art.

[See: Knight Cities Challenge finalists tout pop-ups, toolkits]

Much-needed funds were funnelled to dozens of projects in the 26 U S. communities where the philanthropy invests to make places more livable.

Municipal leaders around the globe now have a whole slate of novel ideas, many with successful proofs of concept, to replicate or build upon to fit their unique needs. As a result, the challenge is likely to leave its imprimatur on urban innovation — and the cities in which these ideas were born — for decades to come.

Small budgets, big ideas

Whittled from 144 finalists chosen from more than 4,500 applicants, the latest awardees will share USD 5 million in prize money to execute their ideas.

As with all Knight Cities challenges, the winners — 19 cities and counties — are a cross-section of their country. They range in size from Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia to smaller metropolises such as Aberdeen, South Dakota; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Milledgeville, Georgia.

A few themes pervade this year’s competition. They include accomplishing goals with tight budgets, making city governments more accessible to ordinary people and turning blight into improvised gathering spots. Here is a sampling:

Innovative engagement

  • Columbia, South Carolina, would create a porch-like setting in front of the state house — complete with informal seating — to encourage citizens to interact with government officials.
  • Mobile voting booths in Milledgeville would provide more opportunities for residents to have a stake in local issues.
  • Biloxi, Mississippi, plans to create community gathering and discussion places along a beach route where desegregation protests were held in the 1960s.

Pop-ups and repurposing

  • Design Center in a Box aims to create pop-up city planning offices across Detroit, where neighbours could trade ideas with city administrators.
  • Bradenton, Florida, plans to transform bus stops, landmarks and other public venues into zones where citizens can have a voice in municipal decision-making.
  • St. Paul, Minnesota, has crafted a set of “civic engagement tools” that residents can use to easily arrange pop-up community meetings.

[See: Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function]

Another theme involves bridging disconnected communities, both literally and figuratively. The Innerbelt National Forest of Akron, Ohio, would replace with parkland a closed highway that slices through two neighbourhoods. And the Horizontes initiative in Wichita, Kansas, is poised to add murals of local residents along an industrial corridor that separates two communities.

The contest was unusual, the foundation says, because it provided average citizens — and not just urban professionals — with opportunities to turn bold concepts into viable initiatives.

“Most grant competitions aim for ideas only from institutions and established programs,” the foundation notes in a statement. By betting on ordinary people, the challenge “activated local networks of innovators who are showing early staying power”.

The challenge even spawned some successes from contestants who failed to secure funds from the foundation. Eight percent of applicants who were not selected as winners reportedly managed to line up investors for their projects.

See the full roster of winners here.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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