Commons Guide to Placemaking, Public Space, and Enjoying a Convivial Life

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  • (e)Book: How to Design Our World for Happiness. The commons guide to placemaking, public space, and enjoying a convivial life. By Jay Walljasper and On the Commons, 2013.



'We are witnessing a significant social shift in which people are rediscovering common connections and recognizing the collaborative power we share for strengthening our communities.

On the Commons documents these examples of the commons in action in our new guide to placemaking, public space, and convivial living by Senior Fellow Jay Walljasper, who writes, speaks, and consults nationally about this emerging trend."


  1. Connection, Commons, and the Pursuit of Happiness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3
  2. How to Design Our Cities for Happiness . . . . . .5
  3. Poor People Need Public Places the Most . . . . . .8
  4. How to Design Our Neighborhoods for Happiness 10
  5. 25 Tips to Make Your Community Better .....12
  6. Small is Powerful . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
  7. Restore the Commons in Your Own Front Yard . .16
  8. How Dutch Neighbors Improved Life in Communities Around the World . . . . . . . . . .17
  9. Every Block Needs a Piazza . . . . . . . . . . . . .18
  10. Make Paradise Out of a Parking Lot . . . . . . . .20
  11. Build on What’s Good to Make Things Better in Struggling Communities . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
  12. The Promise and Limits of Community Volunteers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23
  13. What Difference Can the Commons Make in One Town? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
  14. How One Small Town Lives the Commons . . . .27
  15. The Best Neighborhood in North America . . . .30
  16. Walk This Way . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32
  17. Why Don’t We Do it in the Road? . . . . . . . . .34
  18. Bicyclists Wheel into the 21st Century . . . . . .36
  19. Commons Offers Solutions to Low-Income People from Swaziland to Minneapolis . . . . . . . . .38
  20. The World’s Sexiest Cities . . . . . . . . . . . . .40
  21. The Fall and Rise of Public Places .........42
  22. 12 Steps to Creating a Community Commons . .45
  23. Around the World in 40 Places . . . . . . . . . .46
  24. What is Placemaking? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49
  25. Nourishing the Spirit of Cleveland . . . . . . . .50
  26. Best Little Movie House in the Adirondacks . . . .51
  27. When is a Public Space Not Public? ........53
  28. Is it Possible to Design Great New Public Places? 55
  29. In Praise of Vacant Lots . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57
  30. Forgotten Green Spaces Right Under Our Noses .59
  31. Youth Center in a Midwest Town Run as a Direct Democracy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .61
  32. A City Lover’s Guide to America’s Most Surprising Place
  33. The Unexpected Renaissance of a Mining Town 66
  34. 26 Ways to Make Great Places . . . . . . . . . . .68



Connections, Commons & the Pursuit of Happiness: Why public life and community places matter so much in our lives

By Jay Walljasper:

"At one point in my life, my neighbors and I were fighting battles on two fronts to protect our community. Our modest Kingfield neighborhood in Minneapolis was threatened on one side by the widening of a freeway, which would rip out scores of homes, and on the other side by the widening of an avenue, which would escalate traffic speeds on an already dangerous road.

I remember a dizzying round of strategy sessions, protest rallies, public meetings, more strategy sessions and, eventually, victory parties, which wound up redirecting my life and work in gratifying ways. Until that point, I rarely thought about possibilities for improving people’s lives by boosting public life and revitalizing public spaces.

When we stopped the widening of both Interstate 35W and Lyndale Avenue, I was shocked. That had never happened before around town. Road planners, armed with statistical models forecasting traffic congestion, were a powerful force in Minnesota. But not as powerful as citizens who feel a sense of ownership about their community and are willing to work together to save it--a social mobilization, which I now realize was a shining example of the commons in action. We believed the neighborhood belonged to us, and we made it clear to city and state officials that we would actively participate in any decisions that affect its future.

As sweet as this triumph was, I felt a tinge of sadness. I would miss connecting regularly with these allies who through the months had become close friends. I needn’t have worried. The all-out assault on Kingfield and surrounding neighborhoods instilled a profound sense of cooperation in us. Further meetings and parties and brainstorming session and more parties were soon on the calendar. We recognized it was up to us to make the neighhborhood safer, cleaner, more inclusive, interesting and enjoyable. We joined together to prevent crime and host public events. My partner (and On the Commons co-director) Julie Ristau became president of the neighborhood organization and helped inaugurate a wave of community improvements. Coffee shops, restaurants, stores, art galleries and taverns opened. Kingfield today is more than I ever dreamed it could be when we first moved there.

Experiencing firsthand the collaborative capacity of everyday people to shape their own future has influenced me deeply as a writer, speaker and consultant. Much of my work now focuses on how citizens can make the places they live better for everyone. The articles gathered here explore the wide horizons of what’s possible in communities everywhere.

None of us in Kingfield used terms like “placemaking” or “commons” to describe what we were doing to improve the neighborhood. But I later realized that’s exactly what we were doing. Placemaking means people taking action to preserve or restore a sense of place in their community, which enriches their lives in ways large and small. The commons refers to what we share together, including public places, as well as the rich web of human relationships that makes this sharing possible. An understanding of the practices and the principles of the commons is an invaluable tool for placemaking efforts. (On the Commons is starting a new Public Spaces & Public Life: focus to help communities protect and promote public spaces and enhance the spirit of public life.)

Over the past decade both terms have become increasingly popular, a sign of the rising recognition about what makes our communities strong and alive. The book in your hands (or on your screen) chronicles many dimensions of this growing movement, whose impact can be measured in the numerous friendships, romances, business ventures, community initiatives and other human connections that arise each day in public places around the globe. Yet the ultimate goal of placemaking and the commons is even more elemental: to expand the possibilities for happiness in everyone’s world."

Case Study 1: Winona

What Difference Can the Commons Make in One Town? On the Commons works with leaders in Winona, Minnesota

Jay Walljasper:

"As part of On the Commons’ efforts to strengthen commons connections and reinvigorate public life in communities, I was invited to Winona, Minnesota—a city of 27,000 on the Mississippi River 135 miles south of Minneapolis. During a two-day residency sponsored by Winona State University, I met with the newly elected mayor, a city council member, the director of parks and recreation, business owners, citizen leaders and university students, and faculty and staff. I also spoke to four classes, did media interviews, and gave a public talk.

Additionally, in two wide-ranging discussions at the Blue Heron Coffee shop—a hive of activity from morning to night with an attached bookstore, The Book Shelf—we explored the value of commons-based approaches to issues as varied as transforming the underused riverfront park, reducing tensions between student renters and homeowners, providing a secure economic base for all citizens, and promoting the area as a cultural and outdoor recreation destination.

A theme coming up in all these conversations was that when you recognize that some things belong to everyone—including generations to come—it inspires and empowers you to find new possibilities that benefit the community as a whole. In short, the commons is not just an interesting idea, but also a practical approach that can be applied in solving immediate problems.

This approach builds on a long legacy of valuing and advancing the commons in Winona, which inhabits a picturesque setting between a riverfront dotted with wild islands and high bluffs rising to the west. Much of this land is in public hands thanks in part to John A. Latsch, a successful local grocer who bought up scenery he loved in the early 20th Century and bestowed it to the community.

Walking through Winona, I noticed a distinct sense of the commons in many forms. Venerable brick buildings downtown hosted numerous coffee shops and taverns, which bring people together. The Mississippi River and the towering bluffs are both powerful presences that define the city. On the opposite side of town away from the river, a large city park dominated by Lake Winona offers five miles of lakeside trails, a band shell, recreational opportunities, and an artist-created water fountain. Winona State University’s 9,000 students enjoy a scenic, pedestrian-friendly campus thanks to a visionary plan that closed a number of streets to motor vehicles.

Apart from these physical commons, Winona claims a bounty of social commons much larger than you might expect in a city this size. By sheer good luck, I came to town at very same time as a citywide celebration of Rockwell Kent—an American artist I love for his prints of wilderness scenes, rural people and mythological tales. Kent had lived in Winona in 1912 and 1913 working as an architectural contractor.

The festival was a collaboration of many organizations, with events at the impressive Winona County History Center and the much trafficked Winona Public Library (in the same room where Kent mounted one of his first art shows), and his work was also on display at galleries at Winona State and Saint Mary’s University, as well as the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (which also features work by Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne, and Winslow Homer). A symposium on Kent was held at Winona State and an original play about his time in Minnesota staged at the local Theatre du Mississippi. And that’s not all when it comes to culture: the city also sports celebrated Shakespeare and Beethoven Festivals in the summertime.

Taken together these commons assets add up to invaluable community wealth, which if recognized by Winona residents as something they own together can form the basis for tackling problems and seizing opportunities in the years to come."

Case Study 2: West Marin Commons

How One Small Town Lives the Commons: An interview with Elizabeth Barnet, director of the West Marin Commons. Interview by Jessica Conrad, Community and Content Manager for On The Commons.

Jessica Conrad:

"In 2006, a group of folks living around the small town of Point Reyes Station, California came together to establish, preserve, and enhance community and natural spaces in the semi-rural western region of Marin County. After a series of discussions in which the idea of the commons came up, an organization called West Marin Commons emerged with the broader mission of creating social infrastructure for resource sharing, conservation, and learning.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Barnet, the director of West Marin Commons. Here she explains the organization’s founding story, its current work and shares how her passion for community work led her to collaborate with the late Jonathan Rowe, an author, activist, former Congressional aide and co-founder of On the Commons.

What led you to work with West Marin Commons?

In 2006, my kids and I became involved in a cleanup project with the Tomales Bay Watershed Council on the lower end of Tomales Bay. I was homeschooling them at the time, and I always emphasized learning about the place where we lived. Seeing the value of this to the small group of children I worked with, I began to seek ways to make similar experiences available to the broader community. I discovered a fledgling website for the Tomales Bay Institute (which became On the Commons when it moved to Minneapolis). It was my first introduction to the word “commons,” and it resonated with me right away. I contacted Jonathan Rowe, who was the director, and we met regularly.

A commons survey was proposed on the Tomales Bay Institute website. We used this survey approach to evaluate and measure the layout of our town and we used reading and discussion to consider our roles and the meaning of commons. These exercises were empowering for the kids, and they helped us all discover Point Reyes Station as our place—something we share and take care of together.

Has the idea of the commons caught on in your community?

I’ve been impressed by how many people in town use the word “commons” more and more. But I find that the commons is misinterpreted when people assume that it is ”free” for the taking and not necessarily for the giving. I always try to emphasize the reciprocal aspect of a commons—that our ownership implies we are responsible for protecting and promoting the things we share.

Learning how to navigate these challenges is what West Marin Commons is all about. Here in the U.S. we don’t necessarily develop habits that lead us toward shared decision-making and ownership. I believe education is key for helping people understand the commons approach—and that’s something we can provide at West Marin Commons.

Has the commons approach helped address a community challenge?

Yes, I can think of a number of ways the commons approach has helped the community. Transportation is a good example. We live in a rural place, and we have to do a lot of driving both in town and “over the hill” where people go shopping, see the doctor, many kinds of things. We created a rideshare program called the Over-the-Hill-Gang (which has nothing to do with age, but refers to the fact that you have to drive over an actual hill to get out of town). There’s no insurance, no formality. The forum is just a place for people to connect.

What has been easy or challenging about creating these solutions?

Solutions are needed, and the best thing is that people are both open to new ideas and hungry for inspiration. That makes commons work easy. What makes it hard is getting clear on assumptions. What really is the commons? And how do we intentionally protect and promote it?

What are you working on now at West Marin Commons?

We have three areas that we’re focused on now: Commons Spaces, Commons Celebration, and Commons Connect. Commons Spaces has to do with the town commons lot, the native garden, and the gathering places and pathways in West Marin. We need places where everyone is welcome—every community does.

Commons Celebration is all about celebrating the commons through seasonal, celebratory events, including apple pressing events and barn dances. I love apple pressing because it’s about bounty: we simply have too many apples. It’s nice when you have too much of a commons—especially a physical commons. We have lots of varieties of apples here, and kids love making different flavored apple juices. But beyond the fun, these events have become opportunities for the community to gather.

Commons Connect, our website that includes our forums, is a virtual gathering place. We try to provide the infrastructure for self-help. Those who live here use our local forums, such as West Marin Share, where people post a personal need or offering, or they might post a need on behalf of the preschool or senior living facility. Maybe they’re looking for a desk or bookshelf or lost cat or food for a sick neighbor or the name of a good podiatrist. The website also serves visitors via a calendar and other features. It’s a place where newcomers can start to get connected. There are countless examples. It’s an online gathering place for West Marin.

Another of our central efforts is to provide a nexus including a calendar, a listing of local media and blogs, and a directory. We are also starting to profile happenings and projects in West Marin that wouldn’t get such multi-media coverage otherwise."

Source: (e)Book: How to Design Our World for Happiness. The commons guide to placemaking, public space, and enjoying a convivial life. By Jay Walljasper and On the Commons, 2013. (