Art & Culture

Wild About Urban Commons

Living in a community, whether it is big or small, urban or rural, allows us to access and benefit from shared resources. At a basic level, this includes infrastructure such as roads and streetlights and storm drains. Beyond these necessities, we share our parks and landscapes and intangibles such as public festivals and architectural character. Together, these make up the urban commons, resources that are provided for the benefit of everyone.

Thinking about urban commons helps us think about what we want our communities to be. Even at the infrastructure level, asking ourselves if sidewalks and bike lanes are available defines the priorities in our communities. Beyond basic services, the intangible aspects of urban commons express the personality of our communities. Despite this, many of our shared urban spaces are underutilized and unanimated.

A permanent ping pong table installed in an urban greenspace.
Providing permanent ping pong tables is a fun way to animate park spaces. Fintler, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Empty storefronts. Vacant lots. Unused parks. Many of our urban spaces feel like they’re waiting for something to happen, caught in a liminal space between the past and the future. Waiting for a new business, for redevelopment, for an annual festival. The question becomes, how can we reclaim our shared urban spaces and reimagine them as something more. 

Before we can answer that question, we need to examine the purpose of our urban commons. Does a park exist to provide aesthetic benefits from green and light recreation from a paved pathway? Or can it do something more, by providing opportunities and amenities that give people the opportunity to socialize, or even make new friends? Are streets simply conduits that move cars from one place to another? Or can they bring people together in new and interesting ways?

The urban commons is connected to the concept of the ‘third space,’ an idea developed by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, that classified all spaces outside of home and work as places to socialize and create community connections. While not all third spaces are part of the urban commons—coffee shops and local pubs also qualify—publically accessible third spaces provide unique opportunities for community connection. And increasingly, these open, free third spaces are becoming less available to everyone.

A temporary art gallery in a park. The sign reads "Art in the Park: Different artists each week."
A temporary art gallery in a park. Anthony O’Neil, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Under the right circumstances, our shared spaces bring a host of benefits. Not only do they reduce isolation, but they provide opportunities for socialization and even enhance climate resilience as communities with stronger social cohesion are better able to respond to climate challenges. 

What might our urban spaces look like if we went beyond the basic infrastructure, the acres of green grass, the streets designed for cars over people? 

There are many examples that are already beginning to take hold. Pocket parks—tiny parks that may be as small as a parking space or as large as a vacant lot have been installed in many cities to revitalize and build character in downtown streets. In other areas, community gardens have replaced lawn grass and provide opportunities for community connection while growing food. 

Three people examine a pocket park in a parking space on an urban street. The wooden garden beds are overflowing the lush vegation. The sign reads: Citizen Garden.
Pocket parks can animate otherwise featureless streets. Photo by Christophe Smets via The Guardian.

Urban animation can also be temporary. In Paris, the use of ‘meanwhile spaces’ has become common, where properties that are waiting for redevelopment are used for temporary community uses such as gardens, markets, or even art galleries. By allowing these more ephemeral uses in commercial properties, cities and landlords can avoid vacant storefronts and provide connection points for communities.

We can animate our urban commons in ways that don’t require large investments or permanent infrastructure. In Portland, a music student was single-handedly responsible for placing street pianos around the city for people to play. In other communities, guerilla art decorates public pavements and fences and brings colour to neighbourhoods. Whether through music, art, or even games, the spaces that make up our urban commons deserve to be used, not just looked at. And so the question for all of us becomes: what will you do to animate your community spaces?

A man plays a piano on a Paris street.
Street pianos can be found around the world. This one is in Paris. Guillaume Speurt CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons