Organizational Capacity Building

Candace LaRue and Associates

#nei2012 Reclaiming the Commons

on June 9, 2012

Reclaiming the CommonsL creating community agency and ownership of public space

Cynthia from Project for Public Spaces

How do we use shared places to add value to the public realm, but there is no one really in charge of the public space. When we talk about the commons we have a notion of a square, etc, but there are other examples like Broadway and Times Square. Streets and roads are the biggest public space we have. In New York we have worked on turning lanes of traffic into public space. In Times Square, the sidewalks were narrow. There was no place for people to stop, and workers were unhappy. We worked on fantasizing about how to change this, and worked to make changes in Dept of Transportation too. It had been a bottom-up top-down to make improvements in public space – Project for Public Space is her organization.

Turn everything upside down to get it right side up – what is it we need to turn upsides own:

– the way we design cities
– the role of the community – they are usually involved way too late, and asked to respond to solving a problem they did not create.

We start by looking at a place and defining the stakeholders, then we evaluate what is working and what is not working. Community engagement changes the role of the “professionals” to be facilitators, resources, and implemented, but community members are the leaders.

What is a great places? They have uses and activities, and are self-programming. They are inviting spaces where people can do whatever they want to do in the space.


These aspects of the community can be connected by the civic commons, community gathering spaces, and parks. The connections helps to create sustainable communities of the future. For example, in Richmond British Columbia, the Library and Hospital were able to connect to help reach Cantonese-speaking elderly people who are at high risk for diabetes, because the people were taking Calligraphy classes at the Library. There is a lot of economic wealth tied up in these institutions, and we need to pull if forward.

We like to create places where you can be there 18 hours a day, year round. They are linked to other spaces, and are accessible. They are not surrounded by lanes of fast-moving traffic. These conditions create socialibilty. But, you also have to have a core group who want to come together and reclaim the space.


Creating a great space requires many partners, including sometimes unlikely partners. People are often skeptical, until things work. You must be on the ground, working with people, to design things. Things need to be grouped together so that they can share resources visually, physically, and programmatically. Money is not the issue – you have to build the vision first, and then look for funding.

You are never finished – once the space is designed, maintenance and management are ongoing,

What is Placemaking

Developing public spaces that attract people and build community by bringing people together in an open, welcoming place. Architecture impacts the way people are able to come together in public space. There are concentric circles – place, destinations, region/city/town/neighborhood. Every city needs 10 destination, and each destination needs 10 things to do.


PPS has many examples of how this “Power of 10” works in different settings, such as main street and community gardens and farmers markets. In larger “districts” public space attracts people who then use other spaces.

How do we do this with no money and no resources, with diminishing public investment? How do we support entrepreneurs and create sustainable, local development? Example: farm festival in Detroit, build around the business Peaches and Greens. People had the opportunity to give ideas about how to make the block better in a neighborhood with gangs and many problem. There were free events all day with kids, things to do all day, bike clinics, basketball, etc. the most expensive thing was a jumpy castle. There was no police presence, though they knew the event was there. Gang members were able to participate in the project as well. Starting with the place, they worked on design, supported by a community development corporation. Another example is Gabriel’s Warf in London, where backs of warehouses were painted and filled with artists and entrepreneurs at low rent. Dekalb market in Brooklyn uses shipping containers to create space for artists and entrepreneurs. There have been pop-up parks in Brooklyn and San Francisco, also closing streets on weekends for play – this is reclaiming the commons, using what we have, especially streets and roads.


London orchard project – Carina

This project has engaged with 5000 Londoners to plant 36 orchards and distribute 4 tonnes of fruit. The mission is to “develop a skilled community of Londoners to plant, care for, and harvest fruit trees, connecting urban communities and increasing access to fruit.”

One of the strengths of the project is to see the potential for stewardship of the land and public land where there was one. There is some public land that is not a commons because there is no active ownership of the space. The goal is to transform these underused spaces into a focus of the community and a useful space. Additionally there are about 200 neglected and abandoned orchards throughout London. Urban orchards improve the quality of the urban environment, provide food, and create a rich location for public activity. Community gardens can be difficult because they involve restricting access, and there is a question of who is taking care of the land.


Orchards can be the first step towards creating urban foraging environments or “food forests”.

Stewardship requires a community to take care of the land. There is an issue of “who is the community?” in urban environments with high turnover. The community is not just the environmental activists but also the children, the parents, and everyone else. The organization is loose, supporting local groups who want to design local orchards. Each community group has 5 people who are trained on how to look after the orchards, and then there is a planting day which is a festival involving as many as possible. Each orchard has a orchard management plan, and e city has agreed to not change access to the orchard sites. Orchards are also a way to reclaim lost traditions, to learn lost skills, the creation of new mythologies, and celebrate local distinctiveness. There is also a movement to harvest unused fruit and ensure it is distributed to people who will eat it, and they are doing an audit of where fruit trees do exist in London. Growing apples in London also created opportunities for sharing fruit on a local level, and the apples “have a story.”

Alexa from – On the Commons

“Commoning the Commons- community ownership and citizenship in public spaces.”

The current critical moment includes ecological and economic crises, radical dispossession, anti-democratic forces, and a weakened citizenship. It is not clear what will emerge from the current cruises, but we need to confront the reality that we live in a world patterned by individual, private, market interests. We need to engage in creative disruptions in thinking to change the pattern of how we approach decision-making. We need a better concept of “ours.” If we cannot own something, then we can belong to and with it in a rich, living experience. We need real avenues to enact on that.

The Commons – one definition

The commons is an essential form of wealth that we inherit APR create together , and which must be shared in a sustainable and equitable way.

We need to be able to “see” the wealth that is a commons wealth. If we cannot see that, will be able to see dispossession and imagine paths out of that.


The behavior in a commons is interdependent. Historically commons are rooted in societies where well-being is interconnected. We are responsible to the commons and also need to have some standing for governance of the commons. Much of their work is built on the work Eleanor Ostrom, who distinguished between Open-Access resources and the Commons. The sense of Agency in the commons is critical.

Two Projects

Reclaiming vacant lots in Brooklyn

They mapped all the vacant lots in Brooklyn – there are 596 acres of publicly owned vacant lots in Brooklyn. The project is to “common” the commons by improving access to vacant lots.


The process of “commoning” – Believe it is ours, create ownership, engage in stewardship, establish the right to governance.

The Great Lakes

The governance of the Great Lakes is failing to protect the water and people who live on it. The project is to build a Great Lakes Commons movement to change the foundation of decision making about the Great Lakes, including water citizenship, a new commons charter, legal recognitions indigenous leadership, and catalytic leads hip across sector/community/discipline. This is an attempt to take the commons from the neighborhood to a much larger scale.


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