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Partner Spotlight: The Democracy Imperative

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

National partners are extremely important to the success of the American Democracy Project. With limited time and resources, without our partners we would not be able to offer our members the amount of innovative resources and programming we currently do.

Occasionally, I use the ADP Blog to spotlight the work of some of our stellar partners who have helped advance ADP as a national movement. Today I am highlighting the work of The Democracy Imperative (TDI). TDI’s mission is to strengthen public life and democracy in and through higher education. TDI’s mission has a lot of connection to ADP’s mission of preparing informed, engaged citizens for our democracy.

I became acquainted with the work of TDI when I attended the No Better Time conference the summer of 2008. The Executive Director of TDI, Nancy Thomas, also spoke at our national meeting in Providence. She gave a thoughtful and well-received presentation on politics, power and privilege in community/university partnerships. I have been deeply impressed with TDI’s ability to bring community members, pracademics (practitioners/academics), students, faculty members, administrators and staff  together with the goal of improving democracy.

TDI is a national network of multidisciplinary scholars, campus leaders, and civic leaders in the fields of democratic dialogue, public deliberation, and democracy-building. In ADP, we see democratic dialogue and deliberation as key 21st Century Skills that students need to hone in order to be effective citizens and professionals. TDI’s work has challenged us in higher education to consider how we are helping our communities develop these skills.

Membership in TDI would dovetail nicely with participation in ADP for a campus striving to develop and expand their democracy-building agenda. And the best part about the membership in TDI is that it is free! The TDI website is rich with resources and information about teaching deliberative democracy, democratic leadership and decision making. I urge you to spend some time on TDI’s website and consider joining this incredible network of colleagues and scholars who care deeply about higher education’s role in advancing American democracy.

To learn more about TDI, please visit this website.

Reclaiming Civic Spaces: The Project for Public Spaces

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

It is important for every healthy community to have public space for citizens to engage in democratic work. AASCU universities are often instrumental in partnering with community leaders to reclaim these types of public spaces for civic purposes. This work grows out of their commitment to being Stewards of Place. Indeed, every community has public space that has the potential to be used for important public work – be it as the site for dialogue about important community issues, public problem solving, community organizing, political campaigning, or other important civic activities.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.  PPS was founded in 1975 to expand on the work of William (Holly) Whyte, the author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Since then, we have completed projects in over 2500 communities in 40 countries and all 50 US states. Partnering with public and private organizations, federal, state and municipal agencies, business improvement districts, neighborhood associations and other civic groups, PPS improves communities by fostering successful public spaces.

Please see below for additional information about PPS. I hope many of you will consider how the type of work PPS is doing might fit into your own campus’s community outreach agenda. There are also a lot of great resources and tips on the PPS website that could be helpful for you as you’re thinking about how to improve and/or reclaim a public space in your community. The website also has tips on how university leaders might maximize the use of public space on campus. To read these specific tips, please visit this webpage.


The Re-Emergence of the Public Square

Public Squares enhance urban livability and provide new anchors to downtown development

Today, cities everywhere are thinking more broadly about how to gain an economic boost. Big ticket items, like sports arenas and lavish performing arts centers, which cities once viewed as the key to reviving their struggling downtowns, are taking a back seat to new, lower-cost, high-impact strategies to foster prosperity. More and more, public squares and urban parks, not expensive mega-projects, are emerging as the best way to make downtowns more livable—and not just in depressed urban cores.

A central attraction of cities throughout the world, public squares not only bring economic rewards but offer people a comfortable spot to gather for social, cultural and political activities. They are the pulsing heart of a community and foster true urban sustainability.

Two of PPS’ public square projects recently opened in Houston and Pittsburgh to great fanfare. And in Amsterdam, PPS facilitated a Placemaking workshop that brought diverse stakeholders together to develop a shared vision for an inclusive and livable town square.



Houston’s new Market Square opened to great excitement this fall, with Mayor Annise Parker declaring, “This is the perfect park: it has history, it has green space, it has food, it has places for the pets, it has places for kids to play.” That’s quite a turnaround for a spot once featured on PPS’s Hall of Shame. This is another milestone in Houston’s progress toward creating a series of great public spaces and a vibrant, livable downtown.  PPS was also a key partner on other Houston projects like Discovery Green and Emancipation Park




Pittsburgh’s Market Square reopened this fall with roaring public approval. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl enthused, “today our vision for this public space became a reality, “citing the newly closed streets, freshly planted trees, outdoor seating, and wider sidewalks  that now run through this historic public space. The opening marked the culmination of years of public process and a $5 million investment in the area, with improvements guided by PPS’ community-based plan for the Square




Amsterdam’s Plein 40-45, has great potential to become a thriving town square for a mixed Dutch, Turkish, and Moroccan neighborhood on the western edge of the City.  Just days after a PPS Master Class workshop, the community started implementing a number of the low-cost, high-impact improvements. The Square was even included on a city-wide boat tour of markets as part of Amsterdam’s annual 1001 Markets Festival.  The recent workshops facilitated by PPS brought stakeholders around the town square together- perhaps for the first time- to develop a shared vision for the space that would include all cultural groups.

One of the main reasons for the resurgence of the public square is that they bring livability and many diverse benefits to a city—at a lower cost and greater speed than traditional large-scale developments.  Public squares that emerge through a Placemaking process are sustained by community buy-in can:

  • catalyze private investment and foster grassroots entrepreneurial activities.
  • nurture identity, encourage volunteerism, and highlight a community’s unique values.
  • draw a diverse population and serve as a city’s “common ground.” Successful squares—those that are sustainable both economically and socially—draw different kinds of people with a series of dynamic places within them offering many choices of things to do—socializing, eating, reading, playing a game, interacting with art, etc.

A recent  Washington Post article focuses on the power of “City Parks” to spur economic growth across an entire city, and it points to two PPS projects, Houston’s  Discovery Green and Detroit’s  Campus Martius, as benchmarks for success. Alive with year-round programming and activities, the best squares offer the type of thriving Public Multi-Use Destinations treasured by urban residents which also generate millions of dollars of investment, proving there can be an  Upside of a Down Economy.

PPS is honored to celebrate these and other public squares that have recently opened to make their cities more livable.  We are seeking your stories about squares in your communities that you think are successful. Please send us a description, photos and facts about the impact of a square that has recently opened or been revitalized in your community so that we can share your successes with others! Email

Please visit the PPS website for more information.

Question: How might your university reclaim spaces in the community for citizens to do public work?

Missouri State University: Public Affairs Conference

We need leaders who understand the need to collaborate with others, who both want to and are able to bring multiple voices to the table to ensure that the best ideas have the opportunity to surface and be recognized.

Read more

Writers’ Blocks: An Experiment in Design and Public Deliberation

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that there is a collective unconscious that links all people in the world together. He conjectured that this is why we often witness the creation of similar myths and fables despite great distances in land, language, and culture. While no one can prove the existence of such a collective unconscious, certain events can at times make us wonder if there is something that connects and inspires us all. Case in point: Writers’ Blocks at Penn State University. Writers’ Blocks is very similar to the Democracy Plaza pioneered at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

“The Writers’ Blocks are a series of installation works which foster debate and engagement within public spaces…The project has been developed into a system for everyone to use, easily constructed from commonly available materials.” The blocks consist of artfully displayed chalk boards that showcase student-selected questions with Constitutional dimensions and were originally designed in celebration of Constitution Day in 2007. The blocks are located in a central location on the Penn State campus and feature questions such as “Should the Ten Commandments be posted in public spaces?” “Is torture justifiable?” and “Is intolerance of the 9/11 mosque fundamentally un-American?” (Taken from the Writers’ Blocks brochure.) Because of the installation of Writers’ Blocks, the Penn State community has engaged in an ongoing and sustained discussion about these and other important societal issues. In addition to this discussion, students have learned more about how the Constitution relates to their daily lives.

Aside from the civic learning that is taking place, what is remarkable about Writers’ Blocks is that it was created by Peter Aeschbacher and his architecture students with no knowledge of the Democracy Plaza project at IUPUI.  Writers’ Blocks grew out of a desire by Peter and his students to create discussion on campus about Constitutional issues. In 2008, the model was recognized by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with the National Education Honor Award.

“The project functions at two levels: as an example of design thinking applied to a topic outside the traditional bounds of design (the Constitution) and as an example of a problem-solving tool developed by a substantive engagement with an issue (public participation and civic engagement),” wrote Peter in a recent email to me. Peter continues, “my pedagogic strategy in taking on the topic of Constitution Day with first-year architecture students was to challenge them to come to terms with how they define their chosen profession and its public mission. In addition, the students were also asked to follow through with their ideas in a very disciplinary manner: actually designing and building the final projects. This process closely follows a design process of divergence>transformation>convergence at both the active learning as well at the project level.”

Peter and his students have refined the project so that it is easily replicable by campuses interested in using it for Constitution Day celebrations and other on-campus programming. With this goal in mind, Peter is in the process of developing a manual for installing Writers’ Block on other campuses. As soon as this manual is produced, I will share it on the ADP Blog. I encourage leaders in the ADP network to consider creating similar projects on their campuses – be it a Democracy Plaza or Writers’ Blocks or something else that suits the campus environment and circumstances and encourages discussion.

We see this project as a Signature Practice in Civic Engagement. The project necessitates multidisciplinary learning by, for example, challenging architecture students to explore how landscape architecture might create space for political discussions and learning. Writers’ Blocks also supports an ongoing conversation about how Constitutional issues impact our daily lives, thus developing in students a deepened understanding of the Constitution. Finally, Writers’ Blocks allows students to hone the important civic skill of discussing difficult political issues in a civil manner.

Whether or not the spontaneous creation of two identical and innovative projects proves the existence of a collective unconscious is somewhat unimportant for our purposes. What is important is that both projects arose on separate campus communities to create space for a visual and verbal grappling with pressing contemporary issues facing our democracy.

For more information about Writers’ Blocks, please email Peter Aeschbacher. For more information about Democracy Plaza, please visit this website.

Question: How might your campus create civic spaces similar to Writers’ Blocks that support ongoing discussion about Constitutional issues?

Campus Spotlight: Portland State University’s Second International Institute on Partnerships

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

This week’s Campus Spotlight is on Portland State University (PSU). PSU is hosting its Second International Institute on Partnerships: From Reciprocity to Collective Transformation: Achieving the Potential of Community-Campus Partnerships in Portland Oregon, May 23-25, 2011.

Portland State has earned an exemplary reputation for facilitating and researching equitable and effective community/university partnerships. In ADP, we see effective community/university partnerships as a Signature Practice in Civic Engagement. When a university partners with the community with the goal of helping to solve local, public problems, it is also fulfilling part of its role as a Steward of Place. Community/university partnerships are also one of the most important tools a campus has to facilitate the development of civic agency on the part of students. It is imperative that these partnerships serve both the community’s and the university’s interests. Of equal importance is that universities  are deliberate about building reciprocity into the partnerships they establish. This institute will be an excellent event for those in higher education looking to deepen their understanding and practice of community/university partnerships. Please see below for more information, and consider submitting a proposal for presentation.

International Institute on Partnerships: From Reciprocity to Collective Transformation: Achieving the Potential of Community-Campus Partnerships

May 23-25, 2011

PSU Campus, Portland, Oregon

We have extended the proposal deadline to Monday, Jan 17th, 2011. For details, visit this website.

The 2011 International Institute on Partnerships will utilize a variety of session formats to engage participants in a unique learning environment that brings together national and international leaders in partnership research and practices. We are thrilled to welcome a wide variety of Institute facilitators to share their unique insights on partnerships from the perspectives of community organizations and higher education institutions.

Why “PARTNERSHIPS”?: Insights from decades of practice and emerging research confirms that the most effective community-campus collaborations must be supported by solid partners who work regularly on their partnership development and sustainability.

Why “INTERNATIONAL”?: Community-campus engagement is now a global phenomenon. Thus, we invite colleagues from around the world to focus with us on the many kinds and types of partnerships that undergird local, regional, state, national, and/or international collaborations.

Why an “INSTITUTE”?: The Institute program is directed to strengthening the capacity of both community and higher education constituents for participation in transformative partnerships.  This “hands-on” program will empower attending participants to extend and enhance the foundations of community-campus partnerships with contemporary understandings, research, and practices within a supportive national and international network.

WHO SHOULD ATTEND: Join community partners, faculty, administrators, and students interested in deepening their understandings and practices of community-higher education partnerships.

How will this gathering be “DIFFERENT”?: Through a blend of presentations from the field, plenaries and working sessions, we will deeply explore strategies to address persistent challenges, analyze promising practices, and examine research to advance the study of partnerships.

A sampling of this year’s facilitators includes the following:
Maria Avila
, Director, Center for Community Based Learning, Occidental College

Patti Clayton, Consultant, PHC Ventures & Senior Scholar at IUPUI

Amy Driscoll, Senior Scholar, Portland State University Partnership Initiative; Consulting Scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Visiting Scholar, New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE)

Katherine Lambert Pennington, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis

Karen McGee, Steering Committee Member at South Memphis Revitalization Action Project

Seth Pollack, Professor of Service Learning and Director of Service Learning Institute at California State University, Monterey Bay

Kenneth M. Reardon, Professor in City and Regional Planning Department at the University of Memphis

Curtis Thomas, Deputy Executive Director at The Works Inc.

Facilitator bios are now available on our website.



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