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Philly’s Public Space Fellows say the future of public space is about people

Two Philadelphians who have been awarded $150,000 each for their work in fostering public spaces say they’re thinking of using the funds to support communal programs.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell (top) and Reading Terminal Market general manager Anuj Gupta (bottom) in action.
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell (top) and Reading Terminal Market general manager Anuj Gupta (bottom) in action.Read moreHeather Khalifa; Jessica Griffin / File Photographs

Say the words “public space” and what do you picture? LOVE Park, with its iconic sculpture, grassy fields, and rounded terraces, its spray fountains filled with joyous children? Or do you see Reading Terminal Market, with its marbled meats and wafting spices and constant streams of conversation?

Two Philadelphians have been honored nationally for the way they foster public spaces such as these so people can build connections and partnerships with one another, especially young residents.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, 44, and Reading Terminal Market general manager Anuj Gupta, 45, are among seven winners of the inaugural Public Spaces Fellowship, awarded by the Miami-based Knight Foundation during a conference on June 19. Each won $150,000. The money must be used for something related to public space, but does not need to be used for any specific project.

Ott Lovell became commissioner in 2016 after serving as executive director for the Center City-based Fairmount Park Conservancy nonprofit. One of the key initiatives of her tenure has been working with the city’s Rebuild initiative, which aims to find and fix-up parks, recreation centers, and libraries that need rehabilitation.

Speaking from her office overlooking Love Park, Ott Lovell said she has ideas for what she’ll do with the grant, some of which revolve around how Philadelphia could rethink the way it uses its recreation centers. Ott Lovell said she’s exploring “introducing social enterprise aspects,” which would let residents run or incubate small businesses from the spaces.

One idea she proposed: figuring out a way to salvage the wood from fallen park trees and use it for some sort of entrepreneurial operation that could sell wood to Philadelphia residents for construction. Another idea: setting up music studio space in rec centers for young people interested in producing music. Or the centers could be used for barbershops or even a barbershop school.

Ott Lovell tied these notions to her broader aim for Philly’s recreation centers: making them into “true community hubs” that can play a part in solving, through youth engagement, the city’s broader challenges of crime and violence.

Recreation centers have outgrown “what they were created for in the 1950s, which was [as] sort of an extra," Ott Lovell said. Rather, they’re "an integral part of the social fabric of our communities, and they serve [as] a critical social service for people, for young people especially.”

Ott Lovell said that she is happy with the pace of Rebuild, now that the debate over the soda tax has become somewhat settled. Introduced in 2016, the tax was upheld by a July 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed the city to start using the money for Rebuild and other projects.

Philly’s other Public Space fellow talks of using the grant to continue to bring people together through food.

Gupta, who took over the market in 2015, said Reading Terminal’s “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” program has received funding from Knight before. “We were bringing groups together ... that either did not know each other or had some misunderstanding between each other," he said. Each group would get to know the other’s cuisine and hopefully then come to a more personal understanding.

Gupta thinks an expanded program could be run to help Philadelphia’s youth, who he says “have already started formulating these habits of similar divides, and [the program would] give kids the opportunity to discover that they actually do have more in common with one another than they’re led to think.”

Just how does the market act as a public space? “It’s the increasingly rare public space where you will find such a unique mix of race, ethnicity, religion, language, income level, and everyone’s using it in the same way at the same time,” Gupta said. "There’s no VIP line that you can pay a premium to enter, there’s no special private seating area. You sit where everyone else sits.”

Some of the challenges the market is currently facing, Gupta said, come from an increasingly competitive fresh food and grocery market in Philadelphia. But he thinks the market’s customer-friendly services, such as bag-holding and delivery, as well as the unique types of foods it sells, help it remain competitive.

What stood out about Ott Lovell, said Lilly Weinberg of the Knight Foundation, was that “she is really at the cutting edge of thinking about how residents should be at the center of decision-making.

As for Gupta, Weinberg said that the foundation found him to be an innovator based on how he runs the market and its programs. “We are very impressed with how he thinks how food can bring people together” and the distribution programs he has developed, she said.