Creative Community Development

This is the second installment in an ongoing series of posts highlighting the Good Works of our PGDG! Class of 2013-14. Last Friday, April 11, PGDG! co-founders Danielle DiLeo Kim and Sylvia Palms (today’s blog writer) enjoyed an early happy hour conversation with Donna Carney of Citizen’s Planning Institute (CPI), Beth Miller of the Community Design Collaborative (CDC), and Leah Murphy of Friends of the Rail Park.

Donna Carney


Leah Murphy

You can click on their images here and logos of their organizations below to learn more about their organizations. We asked them about the experience, highs, and lows of being leaders in Creative Community Development. Here are excerpts from the evening.

As we sat down, Donna generously identified her other two PGDG mates that night as having contributed to her own success. Donna directs CPI for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC), engaging citizens in the City’s ongoing planning efforts by giving them the tools to be planning leaders within their own communities. Leah had been a panelist and Beth an instructor for CPI.

CPI logo

This spring’s CPI class started on April 9, and was already off to a great start with over thirty participants selected from 85 online applicants and participants deferred from earlier sessions. Donna re-vamps the course every session, and she describes each and every group as “the best class yet!” Her success? Donna attributes it to the participants themselves and says the current group is a “bunch of over-accomplishers”. She states quite simply that really, anyone can run it, but it is “so successful because I care about it. I give it everything. I visit their neighborhoods…” Donna is completely immersed in her work and admits that running everything on her own, it is hard to know where to set limits. That point was immediately taken up by Beth and Leah.

We asked them each how they keep life in balance. The response began with rolling eyes. Balance? Maybe, not quite. Leah’s response: “Get a dog! I take my dog to work every day. My dog is in planning magazine!” From there, the conversation devolved to a cat calendar, until Danielle put us back on track by turning to Leah with, “ I know you’re pretty maxed out. What are other efforts are you involved with?” Leah replied that in addition to her day job with Interface Studios and her position as President of Friends of the Rail Park, she is also a board member of the South Kensington Community Partners and Chair of their Planning and Zoning Committee.

The three women recognized that there are so many worthy Community organizations out there always looking for leaders, but Donna stated that it is really important to “set limits by choosing one group, doing it well, and letting the rest go.”

Leah agreed with the wisdom of committing to one community—working within her own neighborhood having led to her association with the Rail Park. She described her volunteer efforts as carefully directed, but still evolving beyond her expectations.


The Rail Park work became much more intense after an organizational rebranding last year followed by an official merger with the Reading Viaduct Project in the fall. “Doing a [combined] fund raiser last year made it clear we should be one organization,” each party bringing a lot to the table for an expanded vision. Since then she has moved from advocating for the vision (on her own schedule) to coordinating with a staffed organization. She is now focused on fund raising for actual implementation of the “spur” section of the raised rail line in partnership with the Center City District.

Beth pointed out that many non-profits must carefully navigate the transition from all volunteers, to part-time staff support, to a full time staff and Board. Beth and Leah’s organizations are examples of having developed “organically,” as the need and support developed, and players fell into place.

CDC logo_ black_med-rez hi-contrast

National urban renewal grants in the 70’s spawned a design collaborative in Philadelphia that became the Architects Workshop and eventually evolved into the Community Design Collaborative. Steadfast commitment by core volunteers was rewarded with a major grant from the William Penn Foundation to support its ongoing work. Most other non-profit design centers are university based, supported primarily through internal funding, and without the broad volunteer involvement that is the core identity of the CDC.

Donna interjects that CPI started, not as a standard volunteer organization, but as the “education and outreach” arm of PCPC supported by a volunteer Board of Advisors. At the helm since the 2010 pilot program, Donna has also involved volunteer lecturers in the content development.

Now the Citizens Planning Institute is reviewing its own brief history. “We are still pretty tiny, but we are looking forward”—by asking the dedicated instructors and volunteers “what should CPI look like?” There are no obvious organizational models to emulate, as CPI is breaking new ground, a premier model itself. She notes that CPI is recharged every season through its participants, so part of the plan is to stay flexible in order to respond fully to what each class of “citizen planners” have to offer.

CPI has already been recognized for its unique contribution to the current planning process of Philadelphia2035. The City of San Antonio recently invited Donna out to Texas to lend her insights and inform the approach to their own comprehensive planning effort. They are interested in CPI’s approach of “embedment in the community” to directly engage citizens in leading their own planning efforts.

Beth predicted the CPI model will take off as other cities see its success and want to replicate the powerful tool Donna has developed here in Philly. She describes it as “more educational than project design, as a tool for organizing.” It provides citizens with a resource to make ongoing contributions. Donna points to the fact that it provides real and invaluable “access to Citizens.”

Continuing this train of thought, Beth wondered why other cities really have not done this yet. Donna counts fewer than twenty models of citizen engagement focused specifically on planning (mostly in California and Colorado). Beth put forth the concept of a “Citizens Institute on City Design”, similar to the Mayors Institute on City Design.

It is clear to us that Donna, Leah, and Beth are a “bunch of overachievers” themselves, whom we might all try to emulate. To these three professionals, Creative Community Development happens through deep personal commitment, direct engagement with the community, partnering, looking to both models and participants for lessons learned, and setting high standards of achievement.


To wrap it up, Danielle asked the three for their preliminary nominations to our 2014-15 class of PGDG! They were all ready with names and high regard for their fellow leaders in Creative Community Development. We know so many great women who have come before us, but who are the up-and-coming women who will spearhead the next great civic design projects and community engagement models?

The conversation was far more rich and intense than we can describe in one blog entry (thanks for reading this far!). Over the next few weeks we may follow up with a bit more of the banter and input we continue to gather from Beth, Leah, and Donna. Please tune back in next month for notes from our conversation with a few more of our amazing Philly Girls Do Good! class of 2013-14!

In the mean time (zoom in), words of wisdom shared by Donna:


—Sylvia Palms