Knight Foundation Awards $5 Million in Urban Innovation Grants

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is spreading its latest grants across 19 communities to support an outdoor office, a carpentry-based workforce program and more.
by | April 12, 2016
Boulder, Colo., wins a $200,000 Knight Foundation grant for a job skills program that repurposes trees infested by invasive ash borer. (Shutterstock.com)

Three years ago, forestry staff in Boulder, Colo., discovered that an invasive wood-boring beetle was killing local ash trees. Because of the infestation, the city will have to remove roughly 4,500 affected trees in the next eight years. Put another way, it will have to cut down about 11 percent of its tree canopy. The problem left Yvette Bowden, the director of Parks and Recreation, wondering, “How can we turn these trunks into something that is usable?”

Her solution: Supply the treated wood as materials for a carpentry class teaching job skills to the formerly homeless and other residents looking for work. With a $200,000 grant announced today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bowden plans to help about 80 people over the next two year learn  to make art and furniture out of wood. They'll also gain experience pricing and selling their products at a local farmer’s market.

Boulder is one of 19 places to win a Knight Cities Challenge grant this year. Last October, more than 4,500 people from 26 communities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers applied for a piece of the $5 million grant. Officially, the foundation looks for proposals to “attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunities and create a culture of civic engagement.”

Other winners include a user testing group that provides feedback for new government apps and other technology projects in Miami; a series of pop-up events in Charlotte, N.C., where residents can meet elected officials and sign up for city services; and a new bicycle park in an abandoned section of highway in downtown Akron, Ohio.

Although anyone can pitch an idea, more than a dozen of the winners are public employees. Rachael Tanner, a program specialist in the Long Beach City Manager’s Office, pitched an outdoor office at the Harvey Milk Promenade Plaza, a small park located downtown. “We have amazing weather here. It rains very seldomly, and yet most of us are inside all day working,” Tanner said.

Tanner said her winning idea developed organically from a community meeting hosted by a local foundation. A newer resident mentioned how much he used to enjoy working at a park in Brooklyn. His observation inspired Tanner and her coworkers to look for ways to spur a culture of outdoor working in Long Beach.

Within 18 months, Tanner expects to have WiFi, charging stations and office-like furniture in place. She also hopes the initial $300,000 from Knight will serve as seed money that she can leverage for additional infrastructure investments from local foundations.

The Knight Cities Challenge is but one of many philanthropic competitions seeking to support urban innovation. While other foundations place a greater emphasis on the role of government and demonstrating impact, Knight prioritizes succinct and creative proposals. The initial application was just 300 words long. "We want to be surprised by the ideas we receive," the foundation said on the competition's homepage.

“One of the things that I appreciate about them is that they’re willing to try things that aren’t so measurable,” said Margaret Jones, whose position with the city of St. Paul, Minn., is funded through a Knight Cities Challenge grant.

Jones is a “vitality fellow,” focused on making connections between economic development and parks and the transportation network so that St. Paul is a vibrant and accommodating place for residents of all ages. Much of her work involves acting as a city ambassador at neighborhood meetings and convening employees within an agency and across agencies. “What they’re doing is huge and innovative,” Jones said, “and it’s a little bit risky in the sense that it isn’t your typical measurable goal.”