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21st Century Commons

Creating the 21st Century Commons

Creative placemaking is a powerful concept animating the work of the NEA’s Our Town program and the mission of ArtPlace America. The sites of creative placemaking projects are important additions to the landscape of the communities in which they exist. They are more than vehicles for economic development. In Creative PlacemakingAnn Markusen and Anne Gadwa describe the work this way:

“[P]artners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spacesrejuvenates structures and streetscapesimproves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired." []

Some of this sounds much like a very old idea: the commons–a place where communities gathered to learn, to grow, to celebrate. The commons is a concept as old as civilizations. It was a site of shared experience, of relationship formation, of community growth. Perhaps an understanding of creative placemaking as commons building would be helpful in designing projects. But what is the essential nature of a commons for the Twenty-first Century? And how can understanding the nature of a contemporary commons help maximize the value of this work?

Sociologists have been speculating for years about the need in contemporary U.S. society for a “third place” beyond home and the workplace for people to meet and interact. This concept was introduced by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place (1999) and further developed by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000). The basic premise is that we have lost touch with each other partially as a result of having little time and few places for casual interaction. As a result we are socially impoverished. Additionally, we do not know our neighbors, a critical failing in a time when our neighbors are beginning to look less and less like us, whatever we look like.


The 21st-Century Commons

As a result, the time is ripe, if not overripe, for towns and cities to address the need for public gathering spaces. That is precisely what a commons was, whether called a town square or a plaza. But a commons need not include an actual large open space. The real consideration here is the essence of a commons. In the Twenty-first Century U.S., what is a commons? I believe that the commons for our time is:

  • A place–a physical location where people can come together,
  • An idea–a concept or set of concepts that makes the community assume–even demand–ownership of that place,
  • A container of events–a vibrant center where attractive things always (or with great regularity) happen, and
  • From the perspective of the presenters of arts and culture it is a cultural commons that
    • Reflects the local community
    • Is welcoming to all. That demands that minority cultures be represented respectfully and well.

A Place
The 21st-Century commons is a place. While there is an argument to be made that a virtual community can function as a commons, creative placemaking is concerned with real life places of bricks and concrete, wood and asphalt.

The first consideration is that the place be attractive and inviting. Physical design of public spaces is the subject of much study, far beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that if a commons is to be a place where people come together, they have to want to do so. Can they get to it, is there room to gather, are there comfortable places to be?

In addition to being attractive and inviting, it’s important that the contemporary commons be physically appropriate for its community–appropriate scale, appropriate appearance, appropriate fit with its environment. As a singularly ridiculous example, the courtyard that anchors New York’s Lincoln Center would not make sense in Gallup, NM. Both in terms of sheer size and architectural details it simply would not fit.

Finally, the physical character of the commons should, ideally, be memorable. What about its look stops visitors in their tracks and captures the imagination of the people who live there? Of the three facets mentioned thus far–attractiveness, appropriateness, and memorability–this is, perhaps, less critical than the first two because we must get people to these spaces before anything else can happen; but memorability is what separates a good commons area from a great one. A good commons is iconic, a symbol of the community it serves. Great ones additionally attach themselves to the memory in ways that cannot be denied: think of Fisherman’s Wharf; Pike’s Place Market; the National Mall; Millennium Park; and Santa Fe’s Plaza to name a few.


An Idea


No Barriers
Beyond being a place, a commons for this millennium is also an idea or a vision for how the space will be used. The root idea, of course, is that it must be open to all. There certainly should be no physical barriers. This, while in some cases not simple to ensure, is widely recognized and understood as important.

There should also be no historical, social, or economic barriers. At the very least, any barriers should be as limited as possible. Granted that some creative placemaking projects are not solely public spaces, economic barriers should be minimized. But the historical or social barriers should be recognized and, in whatever ways possible, addressed. Are there historical associations with any of the spaces in question that would cause members of the community to avoid them? In much of the South, places that were unwelcoming to African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era continue to be viewed negatively and are, therefore, off-putting.

Even if there is no such history associated with the place, the content of what is presented must also be welcoming. This does not mean that every offering must speak to a specific under-served community, but some must. Otherwise, the message that “I don’t matter” is clearly understood. Programming that grows out of conversations with communities about their interests is something I address in my work in community engagement. While the details are not appropriate here, in a 21st-century commons it must be clear through the events produced that it is not a private club, a place where anyone might infer a message that they were not a member.

Community Defining
Finally, the ultimate goal of a commons should be to serve as a central element of the community’s identity. It can even be an expression of its best self. A commons to which a community looks in times both good and bad is a commons doing its job. And a city’s best self need not be sugar coated or unrealistically viewed through rose colored glasses. Street theatre or visual art addressing injustice can represent a community confronting its dark places and working to bring light to them.



A Container of Events

To be effective, a commons cannot be “simply” a welcoming space; it should also be vibrant. That means things must happen there that make people want to come and stay. They must happen regularly so that people get in the habit of thinking of the commons as the place to go even if they don’t know exactly what’s taking place. Regularity of events is important. In large urban areas a nightly promise of “There’s always something” is a good way to develop, over time, a loyal following. In places where that level of regularity is not feasible, other forms of dependability of offerings can be applied. That’s one of the reasons for First Friday, Second Sunday, and Third Thursday series. The goal is to convince people that something interesting will be happening so it’s worth the risk of going without knowing exactly what will transpire.

The events themselves should encourage people to come and stay. An approach that has a great deal of potential is rooted in the words “Inspire, Delight, Surprise.” In anything presented, attempt to do at least two. If you succeed with some degree of consistency, you’ll have a booming district.

District Events Mission: A Crucible for Relationship Building
In addition, to serve as a commons, the events taking place should serve as a catalyst for fostering and deepening relationships. Proximity is a pre-requisite for the process but is not sufficient in itself. Activities that encourage interaction are necessary to serve the purpose of creating and deepening bonds between friends and strangers.

This is among the most important considerations in creating a commons for now and the future. So much so that it may be advisable to articulate this in the mission of the events held in the district. An example of the kind of language to consider is part of the mission statement of the Santa Cruz (CA) Museum of Art and History. They commit themselves to “build a stronger and more connected community.” While the Museum is not technically a commons, it sees itself as a center for community gathering. Its staff has invested a good deal in understanding how best to encourage substantive interactions among strangers.

To be effective, a commons cannot be “simply” a welcoming space...

Study of participatory project design is essential for creating an effective commons. Bringing people together to passively observe a performance is better than nothing, but that does not do much to further the end of people getting to know each other. As a preliminary means to stimulate thinking, consider some of the following activities as examples to add to otherwise scheduled programming: “Dancing with Strangers;” contests taking selfies of people one doesn’t know–perhaps with a prize for the most diverse collection of people photographed; or a cultural background scavenger hunt are all things that could be added to some events to make them serve the end of people meeting each other.

A particularly interesting possibility in a cultural district is the pop-up museum. Citing Santa Cruz’s MAH again, they choose a theme and location (sometimes in the Museum, sometimes not) and invite community members to bring something to share about the topic. The result is a temporary exhibition filled with community content brought by residents. A 2013 example was “‘Her Story’ to celebrate women who made an impact on society and in Santa Cruz. The display included letters, handmade quilts, and even cupcakes inspired by famous women from Santa Cruz. Coupled with advertised times for community “show and tell,” such pop-up museums serve as a catalyst for dialogue among people who might otherwise never take the opportunity to speak with each other.

Cultural districts are places. By making them containers for events that foster interaction among members of the community, you move well along the road toward creating a vibrant commons. Of course not every event that takes place there will do this; but the more this possibility is maintained in the mind of planners, the more often it will happen and the greater the chance for mending holes in the social fabric.

A Cultural Commons
For those concerned primarily with programming in creative placemaking projects, there is a concept I first floated on my blog and have included in my second book that is worth exploring. I have suggested that arts organizations and their leaders should serve as curators of a community’s cultural commons. This idea is not about a physical space but about preserving and developing a community’s cultural life.

Curators in the museum world serve both an acquisitions and a content curation role. They select the work to be presented in an exhibition. (In organizations without registrars, they also provide care.) Performing arts presenters are “content selectors,” choosing from the available touring productions. Artistic directors of producing organizations serve a similar function in selecting work to be presented from the extant (or newly commissioned) repertoire.

“Curator of the Cultural Commons” implies responsibility for acquisition and care as well as for content curation. However, the commons aspect of the description also demands that the curation be intended and successfully executed for the good of all (or at least the many). It is not enough simply to “put it out there” and hope for the best. There should be some responsibility for results, for ensuring that the commons is enjoyed by significant percentages of the population. If the commons is not being utilized by the community, it is, arguably, not a commons but a private benefit for a few.


Being Local

A particularly important element of arts missions for the twenty-first century, related to the idea of a cultural commons, is the degree of “local focus” in artistic and other programmatic choices. To connect with the community, an intent to be local must be incorporated into all planning.

An interesting metaphor for this concept comes from the wine industry. For this insight, I’m indebted to a friend and fellow blogger, Sarah Lutman, whose essay “What would a Minnesotan orchestra look like? A reverie on place” inspired this thinking. There are, apparently, two approaches to wine-making: creation of vins de terroir and of vins d’effort. “Wines of effort” reflect the stamp of the winemaker wrestling character from the wine by imposing his or her will upon it, dominating the end product. Vins de terroir reflect the wisdom of the region. The hills, climate, and soil create the grapes. It is the job of the vintner to sufficiently understand the region and its grapes so that he or she can select and blend them into brilliant representations of the terroir. The wines of Tuscany are and should be different from those of Burgundy.

It takes time to learn a region well enough to accomplish this effectively. In winemaking this is not the process of a single lifetime. It is built upon learning across generations. This is why some oenophiles believe Old World wines are superior to New World wines. There have been centuries to perfect the relationship between the land, the grape, and the resultant wines.

The metaphor does not, however, need to imply that it must take centuries for cultural organizations to learn to be local. Awakening to the benefit of reflecting the locale in programming is the simple lesson. Doing so effectively requires effort to learn and understand the community as well as the winemaker understands the land that provides the grapes. It does take time, just not centuries. As excellence in wine is rooted in its terroir, excellence in community focus is location-specific. Every city, community, neighborhood is different.

For Ms. Lutman, “the question of place is different … in Minnesota from what the answer will be in San Francisco, New York, or Atlanta. Our geography, our history, our cultural and social organization are very different from other cities’ and regions’ and a Minnesotan orchestra would reflect that.”

Ms. Lutman’s description of a Minnesota character led me to formulate questions that might lead to insights into the essence of any place.



When you think of our [city, state, region] what are the most important things that come to mind about:

  • Geography
  • Climate
  • Regional History and Historic Events
  • Cultural Expression and Heritage
  • Creative Legacy (e.g., artists and inventors)
  • Food and Drink
  • Character of the People

There is, of course, no monolithic essence in any geographical community, but there may be commonalities that bind many of the communities in a region. Aspects of geography, climate, history, cultural expression, and, yes, athletic teams could be building blocks of common identity. With respect to history and cultural heritage, however, it must be remembered that different subgroups may have profoundly different attitudes. In the South, for instance, the slave, poor white, and slave owner experiences have created, in their descendants, vastly divergent views of the region’s history.

Being local is an essential element of good urban planning as well as development of a vibrant commons. To be so it is necessary to expend the energy to understand as best as possible the true character, the essence of that community.

Welcoming to All
In “being local,” however, there is a strong tendency to be pulled toward the interests and responses of any locales’ majority culture. That’s natural. Numbers move action and decisions. However, if a place is to be a true commons, it must be welcoming to all. That demands that minority cultures be represented respectfully and well. The only way to do so is to be in dialogue with representatives of those cultures and accept their guidance in programming decisions.

The details of community-aware programming, the core of my work in community engagement, are far beyond the scope of what can be covered here. But the essence of what’s necessary can be summarized by the following:

  • Self-perception as community resource and an understanding of the service role of arts and culture
  • Desire and commitment to connect
  • Development of skills in dialogue
  • Investment of time in relationship building and maintenance

Considerations and Admonitions
In planning your commons, here are three important things to bear in mind:

  • A common critique of creative placemaking efforts is that they overfocus on bricks and mortar at the expense of human interaction and experience. Remember that people, not buildings, are the point.
  • Don’t lose sight of the fact that there is a real danger of majority populations crowding out or overwhelming minorities in this work. Creative placemaking is problematic when minorities already feel excluded from the “place” in question. If the place has negative connotations for a population, real work must be done to overcome this. I must here acknowledge my friend Roberto Bedoya of the Tucson-Pima Arts Council who has spoken and written about this issue at length.
  • Collaborations between arts and culture and some other group–communities, governmental officials, developers, social service agencies–are exceedingly odd couplings. In general participants have limited if any experience or skill in communicating across disciplines and worldviews. Expect hiccups and the need to learn from each other.

A commons is a resource accessible to all members of society. The commons that fully represents its community, that is fully local, will be an invaluable resource for the betterment of lives in the town or city in which it exists. It will also be exceptionally attractive to visitors. Authenticity and the unique attributes of an experience substantially different from one’s day-to-day experience are key factors in drawing those from outside to a new and interesting place.

The well-functioning commons of earlier eras has largely died away. We are all in great need of opportunities to expand the range of our acquaintances and friends and deepen our connections with them. Without wide bands of functioning relationships across all forms of difference, our civic life will become increasingly fractious. A renewed commons for the Twenty-first Century could provide a unique opportunity to heal and bind our fragmented and polarized communities. Creative placemaking projects, intentionally developed as the commons for our time, are a mechanism for community improvement waiting to create a better future for us all.