Monday, January 01, 2007

Commons wealth

I just discovered this evening. It's a great site. My fortuitous find gets the year 2007 off on a positive note. Turning community generated ideas into reality can be extremely empowering as I discovered during the years I spent at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). The Web site stresses the importance of commonly owned and shared spaces as a powerful tools for strengthening communities. This concept was one practiced by the residents of the Dudley Street community who designed and constructed two "Village Commons" that hosts, among other things weekly farmers markets during the summer.

Mark Lakeman expands on the concept of community commons in the article below. (GW)

Happy New Year!

Community Generated Solutions

by Mark Lakeman
On the
December 30, 2006

What is not of the whole?

Seeing in terms of, and acting on behalf of relationships is how human communities have historically built their cultures. Through our work in the City Repair Project we have been able to establish that seeing and acting on behalf of many scales of relations is a powerful strategy for rebuilding communities as well. In every one of the more than seventy communities we've worked with to date, each process has begun with people deciding to first create a dynamic social commons as a foundations for building community capacity in order to do more.

For Americans this can be a catalytic stroke, since most developer-built neighborhoods entirely lack social centers. If part of any community-level problem is that people aren't communicating effectively, then perhaps building a place for communication -- and even celebration -- can help improve the situation. We're seeing that the context does indeed improve, for individuals and even whole communities, even when only a few people do the initial work.

As opposed to neighborhood cultures in the USA, where many apparently perceive little in common, innumerble other cultures see the world they inhabit as one great commons. To the extent that individuals in a culture are able to participate in the social commons as a birthright, they are able to engage issues at a local scale and actually solve problems.

More importantly, they are able to creatively participate in culture-building on a frequent basis, establish an overall healthier cultural milieu within which they experience less stress, have more relationships within intact community fabric, such that fewer problems actually arise. People are able to perceive even themselves as part of a greater common whole. I suppose that this is why Americans think that they like the idea of democracy, even if they don't usually empower themselves to experience it at the local level.

After travelling extensively in the late eighties and early nineties, visiting numerous native cultures along the way, I returned to the USA with a broader perspective on cultural patterns. At the beginning of my journeys I had only "first world" experiences and ideas, and various notions based on indigenous cultures which I had acquired in architecture and planning schools.

As I travelled it was beautifully evident how each culture has parallel but different economic, political, and social dimensions. However, the farther and deeper I went the more I experienced how relative each of these sets of patterns were to the people I visited. Looking back over the whole series of events, I now feel that the various cultural patterns express a continuum between two opposites: communities which are self-directing and communities which are not.

In my work as a co-director of City Repair, I often compare the most extremely different context from my travels, the Lacandon Maya in Chiapas, with "normative urban culture" in the USA to illuminate the potential for communities in the USA to self-transform. In fact, there appears to be almost nothing in common between the two communities, beginning with how they see. However, they do have at some level a common nature, and that is where the hope is.

Cultural Differences Inspire New Ideas

Probably the biggest difference between the two cultures is how people see themselves in relation to each other. The Lacandon Maya clearly see their community as a commons, and they create expressions of interdependence in every realm of life. These include a non-hierarchical system of shared power, and a social mechanism powered by deep, mutually held values. Even agriculture for them is interrelational, with mutually beneficial plant "guilds" that serve to protect and vitalize each other. Settlement and urban patterns in the village reflect little if any sense of division of ownership, and everywhere that pathways intersect there are open commons for multiple uses.

This is exactly akin to the way that ancestral European cultures locate piazzas and urban squares, at the crossing of movement. These kinds of choices reflect continuously updated ancient self knowledge, of how a community can self-direct in the most mutually beneficial and sustainable fashion.

On the other hand, communities as they exist in the USA, where people often feel they don't have power to decide anything, where they may not even know each other's names, are usually characterized by a sense of isolation where change is externally driven without regard to community development or well-being. As human character has commonality across cultures, comparisons between two such communities can inspire all kinds of new ideas.

For our purposes in City Repair, we have chosen to focus on engending collaborative processes for reclaiming and rebuilding social commons in local communities as a way to catalyze expanding movements for broader change -- acting locally to transform the larger world. We began at a strategic crossroads in a typical American neighborhood.

Transforming the Grid

It is important to point out right away that, though we began our efforts at subverting the grid with an illegal seizure of an intersection, the process of converting street intersections became a free and legal community development tool within a matter of a few months. This was accomplished through the advent of Portland's "Intersection Repair Ordinance," which established a way forward whereby local communities could be able to directly transform the commons of the street through direct, creative participation. This process has occured nearly twenty times, inspiring many dozens of other projects which have happened at larger and smaller scales.

The key in each case has been the open process, through which networks of people emerge from the fabric of local community to become engaged in a process to directly affect the culture and fabric of where they live. The phenomena I've described has taken place not only in Portland, it is now underway in cities across the country, from Los Angeles and Seattle to Toronto and Cambridge.

It's almost the eve of the New Year, so I'll stop for the night and say more about these exciting projects when I return in January 2007!


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