Towards commons-oriented urban planning

On the Commons is paying sustained attention to the development of urban commons.

For example, see the articles on neighborhood commons, and urbanism applications in Portland, Oregon.

Most interesting is their interview with urban planner, David Motzenbecker, who is president of the Planning Commission in Minneapolis.


Public process as it exists today is not a desirable commons-based, inclusive, creative, bottom-up assertion of ideas by the people—although that is what it pretends to be.

It’s actually an expert-driven, one-way dissemination of ideas from the top.

What prevents us from having the citizenry engaged in planning from the outset? The answer, as Robert Reich illuminated in “The Power of Public Ideas”, goes back to the era of Woodrow Wilson and F.D.R. when “expert choice” was the preferred method for implementing policies, which even the public itself was solidly behind at that time. Public interest was deemed non-existent – it came to be seen as merely multiple groups competing for influence and power. As Reich points out, “instead of finding the common good…the new language of public management saw the task in pluralist terms – making ‘tradeoffs,’ ‘balancing’ interests, engaging in ‘policy choices,’ and weighing the costs and benefits.”

This brought us to the current process of public participation: experts ruminate on an idea; which is then crafted into a plan or policy; this policy is then drafted and given to the “public” for their “input”. But that input is limited—it is received for only short period of time, and is seen as data to be reviewed for relevance by the expert. This basically means that the decision rests with a public official, who weighs the experts’ plans and then reviews public opposition before making his or her own decision. Do you see anything wrong with this model? What I see is a process where the public’s sole role is reactive, attacking proposed changes. They have no say in actually creating the plans, no true integrated opportunity to express their ideas and visions.

Let’s now contrast the current system with a more commons-based approach. In this approach, experts and the public begin the process together with shared ideas and collective creativity. Challenges are framed and ideas are vetted from multiple perspectives; detailed information is provided via multiple channels; threats to people’s deeply felt identity with a place are considered from the beginning and help shape the plan or policy; a draft is written by both the experts and the public together – offering recognition and fostering pride in its creation; engagement has occurred from beginning to end.

A commons-based process builds early and cross-jurisdictional collaborations to shape a shared vision. The best ideas do not always come from a lone genius or experts, but rather are an amalgam of many ideas nurtured together. If someone is truly involved, deeply and intimately, in a process they take ownership in it. It matters a lot to them that they are being taken seriously and listened to. Taking the time to do this is—to some degree—a sacrifice, as we all have busy schedules. Yet, engagement is an act of stewardship that should not be ignored.

This understanding about open-sourced ideas generating improvements in many levels of public policy is at the heart of a new commons-based participatory process for a new era. Think of the creative power possible in your neighborhood, your city, your region, when this process reaches its potential?”

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