The Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge Wants To Find Creative Ways To Improve Urban Life

And it’s shelling out $5 million to help the people doing it.

The Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge Wants To Find Creative Ways To Improve Urban Life
[Photo: Drew Coffman via Unsplash]

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has kicked off their third annual Knight Cities Challenge. The group plans to divide $5 million between roughly 30 to 40 winners with bold plans to attract new talent, expand economic opportunity, or increase civic engagements in any of the 26 nationwide communities where the foundation’s founding moguls once operated newspapers.


The hope is to incubate an array of progressive civics projects that might offer either important lessons for other cities or the change to be transplanted there. Awards will comprise the remaining installment of a three-year effort to give out a total of $15 million (about $5 million per year) to people interested in trying new ways to build more inclusive, successful cities and neighborhoods. So far, the group has awarded 69 payouts, which are generally in the low-to-mid $100,000 range, although some have been much lower and others much higher. The application deadline is November 3. What’s most novel for the nonprofit world is how easy it may be to actually get ideas green lit.

[Photo: Jacob Culp via Unsplash]

“Their job with the newspaper was just to inform citizens and then citizens could make their own choice about what direction the community should go in,” Abbot says about the Knights’ original business model. In a way, this competition builds on that. The group wanted to create “a very, very, very low barrier” to letting anyone share their own community improving solutions with anyone. Then make the ones that communities themselves supported actually achievable. “We believe very strongly that a good idea can come from anyone,” Abbott adds.

To that end, the application process is open to any area person or group with an idea. According to contest info, that includes “neighbors, architects, activists, artists, city planners, entrepreneurs, students, educators, city officials, as well as governments and organizations.” There are no vague or automated hoops to jump through. Requests for funding hinge on a 300-word essay, in which potential grantees must answer three questions. Abbott summarizes: “What your idea? Why is this the right time to do this in this city? And, who is the team who is going to execute this?” The merit of each idea is evaluated by a board that includes local paper readers, other community grantees, and national leaders in related fields. (To make the whole process even less daunting, the foundation is holding community meetings to drum up awareness and share more information.)

Earlier projects that have done well include creating a science barge on Miami’s Biscayne Bay. The so-called “floating innovation lab” doubles as both a public attraction and research vessel, working on projects that promote STEM education for visiting students and sustainability initiatives, which provide a direct way for visitors to learn more about how the city must plan for the future. It’s become both a destination for school field trips, and spot for public salons with related researchers.

Another effort called the “pop-up pool project” aimed to increase use and access to Philadelphia’s public pools, which suffered from a lack of programming and deck-side furniture. At one test zone, a few rule tweaks and water classes–plus a handful of other changes–upped usage by 50% last summer. The city has since adopted the program and plans to roll it out at five more pools this year.

In Columbus, Georgia, the Minimum Grid plan for more walking and biking accessibility between midtown and uptown has given the city a much needed plan for boosting mobility and connecting two areas of town that might otherwise feel separate. That’s led others to tackle more community-improvement projects.


Abbott has just one warning: “If you propose an idea, you have to be aware that we might select that idea. And if we select that idea you will actually have to do it.” Communities may seem more divided than ever, but Knight wants to take a risk on anyone ambitious enough to change that.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.