Michael Moloney/shutterstock

Michael Moloney/shutterstock

Think Boston public spaces, and you’ll probably picture the Public Garden, with boats swanning across the lagoon. Or a concert along the Charles River Esplanade. But it’s the smaller spaces, the hundreds of diverse public places sprinkled around Greater Boston, that reflect the city’s true nature—and drew the Boston Foundation’s attention.

Last month, the community foundation announced a pilot program to ensure diverse voices are being heard amid the cacophony of rapid development and growing inequality. Its Place Leadership Network will address spatial justice through a nine-month peer learning and leadership development program that aims to elevate cultural expression, spur economic development, and help build equitable communities. 

This initiative comes at a moment of rising concern about gentrification and housing costs in many U.S. cities. It also comes at a time that many urban funders are investing in parks and public spaces, as well as creative place-making initiatives—but face growing questions about whether such grantmaking serves to accelerate displacement of lower-income residents. We’ve reported extensively on efforts by foundations to navigate the tensions around public spaces and private money, including through an initiative launched in 2016, Reimagining the Civic Commons

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A Network Emerges

The Boston Foundation (TBF) is no stranger to these issues, operating in an increasingly expensive city that’s seen fierce debates over gentrification and displacement in recent years. 

One of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, TBF sees its mission as bringing people together to solve Boston’s big problems. It plays a central role in the city’s civic leadership, working closely with nonprofits, philanthropists, government, and business. 

Since 1915, the foundation’s made grants totaling $2.05 billion on behalf of its thousands of donors. But that’s not the entire story. It also engages in limited discretionary grantmaking, representing just 18 percent of its overall giving. TBF’s president and CEO, Paul Grogan, says that means it has to be “smart and determined” about taking on challenges. 

The Place Leadership Network is one of the foundation’s four key initiatives within its arts and culture impact funding. It will convene diverse place-based organizations, and place-making point of views, to support the improvement and stewardship of equitable public spaces. Leaders will be compensated for their participation during the learning process. “Meaningful” funding is available to help goals become reality at the program’s conclusion. 

Eight organizations from across Greater Boston were selected as the network’s first cohort, representing diverse cultures, goals and organizing structures. The team from the Asian Community Development Corporation hopes to strengthen Chinatown’s cultural identity through a mural and plaza intervention. The Hyde Square Task Force team is working to engage youth from the Latin Quarter in designing and animating its public spaces. Other teams include a Business Improvement District that’s trying to expand spaces for creative expression, a civic association that’s transforming vacant parcels of land into micro-enterprises, and a network of 56 urban community gardens that wants to better integrate cultural and creative uses. 

A “Radical Trust” in Place Managers

Philip Barash, who’s overseeing the network at TBF, explained the guiding principles behind the foundation’s approach. 

Since the 1970s, the role of governments in creating and maintaining public spaces has diminished, he said. Smaller, often hyper-local community organizations and volunteers stepped in to steward local spaces, driven by a variety of agendas. These “urban place managers” are now an indispensable part of the ecosystem, a group that Philip calls “under-resourced, unsung heroes.” TBF considers them the single best resource in advancing the public’s interest, and places “radical trust” in the wisdom of its first cohort. They’re already successful, and best know their own needs. Philip says any change will come from them, rather than any kind of top-down set of marching orders and TBF’s funding aims to encourage that. 

Learning From Each Other

The organizations’ leaders will receive access to local and national resources and expertise, leadership development, and training in curricular modules themed around critical elements of place management: planning and zoning, tactical urbanism, fundraising, and working with creative producers. But the network’s real goal is for the cohort to learn from each other. That mindset was firmly established during the application process, when applicants were asked what they wanted to learn, and what they wanted to share. 

The best place-based philanthropy expects and enables community residents to participate in determining their own futures. The network’s ultimate goal is to create a large, cohesive field of urban place managers who are networked and empowered to act as one constituent in the eyes of the city and state. Philip thinks the capacities and relationships they develop will unite them in common purpose when it’s time to help formulate public policy, or advocate for funding and services.  

Before any of this started, TBF spent a year in constant communication with disparate constituents, from small garden clubs to economic developers, building networks and relationships. Nine months from now, it hopes eight of them will speak with a louder voice.

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