Building Community Connections: Champs Enhance Civic Engagement With Innovative Projects

The Emerging City Champions is a fellowship program for civic leaders with big ideas to make their communities healthier, happier, and more socially connected. The program is run by 8 80 Cities, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program started in June 2015, when each Champion was given one year and $5,000 to transform their neighbourhoods.

Three of these Champions have committed themselves to enhancing civic engagement by sharing stories, building living rooms, and empowering youth through bikes. These are their stories.

Binsen Gonzalez

City Astronauts
, launched in December 2015, is a micro-storytelling and public art project that encourages people to share thoughts and ideas about themselves, their neighbours or their city. A team of City Astronaut ambassadors invites Miami residents to share local tips from their favourite coffee spot to the best parks or safest bike routes. This advice is then written on Keys to the City, which are hung on colourful doors across Miami Dade College campuses.










According to Binsen, “The goal is for the keys to enhance our understanding and deepen our appreciation for our community through written acts of urban kindness and knowledge sharing.”

The “keys” created by community members will be published at The project can be tracked through Instagram @CityAstronaut and on Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook.

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Varian Shrum

For one weekend in October 2015, Varian transformed a vacant lot into a vibrant outdoor living room in South End Charlotte. The Neighborhood Living Room weekend was jam-packed with creative programming and events, including pop-up coffee shops, food vendors, beer samples, local restaurants and entrepreneurs, live music, an art crawl, outdoor morning yoga and storytelling for children. It all concluded with a Sunday afternoon tailgate for a Carolina Panthers game. The launch of the CLT Living Room featured remarks from 8 80 Cities’ own Gil Penalosa. The project was deemed an immediate success and attracted heaps of attention from local media.










Inspired by the impact of the CLT Living Room, Historic South End Charlotte, the local business improvement association where Varian works full-time, launched a micro-grant program for new placemaking projects. The program will award $1,000 grants to innovative projects that improve the public realm in the Historic South End.

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Jason Tanzman

Jason’s work with Cycles for Change helps kids start riding bikes and supports them in becoming local leaders and advocates for safer streets. Through the organization’s Youth Leadership Council, several young people have participated in leadership training and become directly involved shaping the programming and advocacy work of Cycles for Change.

In addition to the Youth Leadership Council, Cycles for Change has various youth programs including bike mechanics and safety classes, as well as an ‘Earn-a-bike program’ where students learn how to build a bike, which they keep at the end of the course.










From May 27-29th, Jason and his team at Cycles for Change are hosting the national Youth Bike Congress in Saint Paul. They have already secured 8 80 Cities’ founder Gil Penalosa as the keynote speaker for the event.

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