Knight Foundation gives $135,000 to local nonprofit to develop public space study in Columbia

The Central Carolina Community Foundation is heading up efforts to create community spaces across Columbia. The local nonprofit was awarded a $135,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which will be used to conduct a study on public spaces and community life downtown.

“Knight believes we truly are on the cusp of something,” said JoAnn Turnquist, president and CEO of the Central Carolina Community Foundation.

Columbia is one of 26 Knight Foundation cities around the nation.

The national organization has invested more than $10 million in the city over the past 10 years on various projects including after-school programming through the Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia City Ballet and Edventure Children’s Museum, as well as providing assistance with voter initiatives and free tax preparation.

The Public Space/Public Life Study is intended to help inform Columbia City Council and shape the development of currently planned and future projects to improve areas like Main Street and Bull Street.

The study is being led by Ewa Westermark, director of Gehl Studio-Copenhagen and Geoff Dyck, an urban designer for Gehl Studio-New York. The Denmark-based architecture and urban planning firm has worked with elected leaders, developers and public and private organizations to find ways to reimagine cities to be more pedestrian friendly and create engaging public spaces.

The company has worked with New York City to redevelop Times Square with bike lanes and walkable spaces to be more welcoming to residents and visitors. The team also has helped develop a plan to turn a dangerous and neglected street in San Francisco’s Mission District into the Mercado Plaza, which began construction in 2014.

“We base our knowledge on research that goes back 40 years in studying how our city spaces actually affect people’s behavior,” Westermark said.

Gehl representatives initiate a study of a city by setting up pilot programs or conducting a prototyping festival to let residents test out a new way of moving around or engaging in a neighborhood, Westermark said.

“This is a new way of engaging the communities of actually having a dialogue with people,” Westermark said. “We engage people and talk to them in the public spaces around real life experiences of seeing the new type of city.”

Westermark and Dyck, along with city planner John Fellows spent time this week walking through the Vista and other neighborhoods to get a feel for the city, and will conduct preliminary community engagement sessions in the future.

The sessions will include interactive vision boards intended to allow residents to determine where and how they want potential community spaces in the city to be developed.

“One thing that we’ve learned you cannot tell people to change behavior,” she said. “The only way somebody would change behavior is if the environment compels you.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin visited San Francisco several months ago to see Gehl Studio’s San Francisco projects to get an idea of how they operate in big cities.

“Of all the things we’ve been able to do … to improve quality of life and connectivity and what we’ve been trying to do to attract and retain the best and brightest talent here to the Midlands, this is an excellent opportunity,” Benjamin said.

The team plans to return to City Council in October to study life in Columbia and identify key areas of the city to try out their public space projects.

In other council action:

  • City Council unanimously approved a funding request to allocate an additional $25,000 to next year’s Palmetto Capital City Classic football game at Benedict College.
  • A decision to approve the rezoning of property at the corner of Lady and Park streets for a potential parking lot was deferred to the Oct. 13 meeting so concerns from the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association can be addressed.
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