The New Commons
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Mark Twain once advised, “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” In many low-income city neighborhoods, that may seem impossible. The land’s been consumed; built on, paved over, or contaminated, and none is left at any price for parks or other greenspace. But many communities are proving Twain wrong by reclaiming their landscapes and, in effect, making new land.
Take Yonkers, New York, for example. Or Lawrence, Massachusetts, or Richmond, California. All are mid-sized cities where, after industry and jobs departed, black and brown people ended up being concentrated in park-poor – sometimes park-free – environments. Now these are all places where, through community-driven efforts, abandoned rail rights of way are being transformed into green community corridors.
In each city, a simple greenway (a landscaped route for walking and biking) would be welcome. But “greenway” doesn’t begin to describe what’s being created. These are not your grandmother’s rail-to-trail projects. They feature orchards, playgrounds, community gardens, wildlife habitat restoration, commercial district revitalization, public art, tree planting to sequester carbon and reduce energy use, and more. Each community is producing not just a greenway, but a commons.
The same diversity of uses is being introduced on other parcels of land, large and small, that communities across the country are reclaiming. With assistance from Groundwork Milwaukee, 100 neighborhood groups have turned vacant city-owned lots into urban gardens designed and managed not just for growing food but for varied community-building activities.
Blighted land, some of it abandoned or neglected parkland; is being repurposed as:
- Urban farms in Lawrence and Somerville (MA), and Elizabeth (NJ)
- Outdoor classrooms in Yonkers and San Diego
- Stormwater green infrastructure in Milwaukee, New Orleans and Providence
- Native plant or tree nurseries in San Diego and Providence, and
- Through trail construction and other work, newly useable places to exercise, socialize, gain skills and experience nature in Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis and Richmond (VA).
Creating the new commons depends on community initiative. City governments rarely have resources to build and maintain parks in marginalized neighborhoods. And today’s understanding of the green assets a community needs to be healthy and resilient calls for more than “parks” as we’ve historically thought of them. It takes a village to figure it out.
Community engagement is integral to the entire life cycle of the new commons: visioning, design, construction, stewardship, and management. For Earth Day of his first year in office, Lawrence’s Mayor Dan Rivera asked for 2,000 volunteers to participate in a citywide clean up. The community turned out, thanks in part to the pride that had grown up over years of resident planning and work to carry out the transformation of brownfields and a junk-filled Spicket River into a 3.5-mile greenway that links numerous parks and community gardens. But more than pride was at work. Lawrence, often disrespected by people beyond its borders, has been growing a culture of collaboration and shared stewardship that would be the envy of most cities.
Like the commons of other times and places, today’s urban commons are shared resources, places for social and economic advancement rather than mere amenities. They’re working landscapes; places for gardening and farming, walking and bicycling, building community, and introducing youth to outdoor work, engagement with nature, and STEM education. Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th century park builder, is said to have engaged in social engineering by designing places for residents of all classes to mingle freely. By comparison, the people of the Milwaukee Urban Garden network, and community members who are greening the fabric of other neighborhoods, have put social engineering on steroids.
This work is a new form of community development; a vital complement to affordable housing, quality schools and good jobs. Its significance lies in three areas: health, agency and equity.
While the park-building of yesterday began with places and focused on design, today’s work begins with people and focuses on health and well-being. As America ponders the root causes of its dismal health statistics and sets out to build a culture of health, the inadequacies of neighborhood landscapes, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, become conspicuous. Environmental assets that make a neighborhood a healthy place to live include parks and play spaces, walking and biking infrastructure, tree cover and nature, gardens and other sources of healthy food.
But a healthy neighborhood is more than a collection of such assets. It’s a place that creates connections between neighbors, provides opportunities for hands-on learning and skill-building, and supports a culture of outdoor work and play.
In communities with long experiences of discrimination, poverty, and trauma, feelings of disempowerment can hinder individual and community progress. Those feelings reflect not just history, but hard contemporary realities that require more than improved morale. But agency, one’s readiness to effect change, provides a critical foundation.
Making visible improvements in neighborhood conditions, hand-in-hand with other residents, can be a powerful way to build confidence in one’s ability to change things for the better. The improvements themselves matter, but the process matters too, whether it involves pulling debris out of a river, planting trees, building park structures, turning blighted land into a community garden, or designing a new public space with other community members. Neighborhood parks are important places to work as well as play.
For youth on the Green Teams of local Groundwork organizations, neighborhood greenspace can serve as a portal to empowering experiences far beyond a community’s borders. Starting with paid employment, skill development and learning through projects in their communities, they move on to work in nearby National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges and places such as Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. Having completed badly needed work to reduce maintenance backlogs, Green Team youth feel not just satisfaction with their accomplishments but a sense of ownership and larger purpose that stays with them.
Inclusive development is a preeminent sustainability goal for our era. In cities with hot real estate markets, new or renovated parks can heighten the risk of displacement for longtime low-income residents. Avoiding displacement requires, among other things, bold housing affordability and employment strategies.
A critical but sometimes overlooked precondition for inclusive development is residents who feel empowered, who are connected, and who can visibly assert their history and culture in a community’s public spaces. If they function as part of the new commons, parks can be staging grounds for equity rather than displacement. We should make sure they fulfill that potential.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.