Re-imagining the Commons
Next City, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization directed by Diana Lind and dedicated to exploring urban issues, is living its mission by turning their headquarters into a local learning laboratory, art gallery, and hot spot for boundary-crossing conversation.
In an age of ever-expanding virtual experience, it’s never been more crucial to be intentional about cultivating vibrant public spaces. Even Next City, a nonprofit organization most widely known for its online coverage of urban issues all over the globe, recognizes the irreplaceable power of the local gathering, which is why they’ve turned their office into a modern commons.
The Storefront for Urban Innovation, as they call it, engages local residents in Philadelphia’s Brewerytown neighborhood through city-themed art exhibits and events. By re-invigorating the conversation in an unconventional space, the Storefront encourages people to cross geographical and demographic barriers. They will use their $10,000 City 2.0 Award to curate and mount multiple installations on each of these four themes: the built environment and infrastructure; access and equity; culture and identity; and sustainable communities.
One recent exhibit, created in partnership with a local nonprofit organization serving youth, is called “Listen to the Kids.” Locals showed up in large numbers to the opening night block party, circling around the life size cutouts of neighborhood kids emblazoned with declarations of how they want to improve their communities. Diana Lind, Next City’s Executive Director & Editor-in-Chief, explains, “It established the kids as the authorities on their own urban experience.”
This is the essence of the Storefront for Urban Innovation—a physical place where community members can learn about and collectively create an urban agenda for their city, rather than having it imposed from on high by politicians or imported from academics. Lind explains: “At first, people would come in and ask us the questions—most often, ‘What are you guys doing here?’—but now we’ve learned to ask questions, too: ‘What caught your attention? What do you think of the exhibit? What do you do in the neighborhood?’”
While Next City is new to the neighborhood, many of the residents have been living there for decades. A future exhibit will feature the rich histories of local folks through a “psycho-geography”—essentially a map of memories. The Next City office, they’re told, used to be a toy store; it’s the kind of detail that can be lost in a place that doesn’t take the time to record and share its own colorful history.
Next City has already heard from a range of American cities interested in replicating the Storefront for Urban Innovation model, including Cincinnati, Detroit, and Louisville. They hope to produce a “starter kit”—outlining their learnings and recommendations—that will assist cities all over the world in starting their own storefront spaces.
A storefront that invites dialogue on urban issues among everyday people.
Diana Lind joined Next City in 2008 and is the organization’s executive director and editor-in-chief. Diana was a 2011 Van Alen Institute Fellow and is the author of Brooklyn Modern: Architecture, Interiors & Design (Rizzoli, 2008). She graduated from Cornell University (BA, English) and Columbia University (MFA, Creative Writing). Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Architectural Record, and many other publications and her work with Next City has been profiled in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monocle, and many other media outlets.