In my previous column, I discussed “place-led governance,” in which urban development considers history, cultural meaning and an inclusive understanding of community members’ use. At the core of place-led governance lies the idea of the commons.
For most people, the commons means natural resources such as air, water and soils. Absolutely true—but not sufficient. Current commons thinking also includes cultural traditions, the digital world, public spaces—things we share freely. But the commons is a process as well as a thing. With the commons, people “self-organize durable arrangements for managing their own resources,” as David Bollier says in his book Thinking Like a Commoner.
Whether “The Lens” becomes a beloved symbol of community identity or a monstrous half-million-dollar white elephant remains to be seen.
You may also associate the word “enclosure” with the commons. Historically, “enclosure” refers to the 18th-century English process of fencing off traditionally open grazing lands against the peasantry in favor of private landholding. “Enclosure” of the broader commons occurs today through governmental fiat, so-called “private-public partnerships,” outsourcing and outright gifting of public resources to private concerns. Government’s mantra of “increasing the tax base” often involves capitulation to private market forces—a kind of enclosure that often disregards the public will. The end result is that our public bodies become more and more dependent on business outsiders and non-local consultants to implement (or impose) a top-down preset vision rather than an admittedly messier bottom-up, organic, community-oriented development. Democratic processes are undermined, but in the fray, the tradition and identity that are invested in well-loved public spaces and historic buildings are lost. Local treasures “are stripped of the qualities that make them locally distinctive and emotionally significant,” as Bollier says.
Public spaces are among the most contested areas of enclosure today. A professional alliance of politicians, developers and professional architects and planners wrests decision-making from the public’s hands for economic development and so-called “progress” (really synonymous), more in the service of market growth than public need. “Public input” is sometimes gathered at various stages of the planning process, but this is usually long after the professional alliance has already developed its vision and often created proposals and plans. At worst, public comment is an after-the-fact formality that is ignored.
With the commons as the organizing principle of community development, planning would begin by studying the people’s use and practices, and soliciting their needs and wishes, all through an inclusive, comprehensive process. Through this “vernacular” approach, local wisdom and heritage are respected, and collective values are realized “over and above those of the state, the corporation and other institutional powers,” as Bollier says.
It’s not difficult to see how Iowa City, in its city core development plans, is drifting further and further from commons principles. When development begins with the professional class of consultants, managers and developers rather than the public, its customs and its culture, the inevitable results are what upset and disenfranchise the broader community: free or nominally priced land, TIFs, consultant-generated plans and loss of historic structures.
Which brings us to Black Hawk Mini Park and “The Lens,” a proposed thirty-foot-tall, half-million-dollar public art installation by London-based architect Cecil Balmond. Deanne Wortman’s excellent 2010 Little Village article “Paint the Town” details the origin and history of Black Hawk Mini Park very nicely, a public space that grew out of grassroots conversation and that respected the values of democratic access, inclusive use, our responsibility to be good stewards of nature and community, and history and heritage. In my own “UR Here” column called “Open Spaces” in 2012, I cited original Project GREEN park designer Jim Maynard’s Press-Citizen editorial in which he discusses the Black Hawk Mini Park’s original intent, which was never fully realized. Without the suggested parklike and outdoor café atmosphere and public stage as proposed, Maynard says that the ultimate result, especially after its later modification, “was and is totally lacking in the appeal, attraction, ambiance and intimacy of the original design.”
I am casting no aspersions on the many good people and public servants, including those on Iowa City’s Public Art Advisory Committee and the selection committee that chose “The Lens,” who have worked hard and contributed many hours in sincere service to the community. My point here is to question if our community is following an increasingly paternalistic development ethic, a flawed process that results in a greater enclosure of the commons rather than the realization of broad and representative community wishes. The assumption going in to the Black Hawk Mini Park development that funding for a public art piece would need to be massive—and thus private—short-circuited a commons-oriented process from the get-go. When the design was revealed some weeks ago, the fact that elite private donors were invited to a private reception for the first view before the general public spoke volumes.
Supporters of “The Lens” tout its signature presence and theoretical interactiveness. Critics of the piece decry its imposing character and chilling imagery. With a thirty-foot self-identified “lens,” it’s kind of hard to miss the suggestion of Big Brother watching people’s behavior in this public place that has been the site of much controversy in recent years over who uses the space and how. Mr. Balmond claimed he looked at community history in conceiving the piece, but there’s little evidence of that in my eyes in the final product, and it’s hardly possible for a stranger to the community to garner a deep understanding of the place in a few weeks. Regardless of the specific characteristics of the piece itself, “The Lens” consumes the entire space, replacing the “park” with a “site installation.” Whether that installation becomes a beloved symbol of community identity or a monstrous half-million-dollar white elephant remains to be seen.
Urban designers Nikos A. Salingaros, Federico Mena-Quintero, and others promote an alternative development process, applying the ideas of peer-to-peer production in what they call “P2P Urbanism.” As David Bollier describes it, P2P Urbanism makes “city design and daily life more hospitable to ordinary people. Instead of the dehumanizing monumentalism that ‘starchitects’ have inflicted on many cities, P2P Urbanism proposes collaborative design and user participation in urban planning” and making “urban design more adaptable to local conditions and individual needs in the style of open source software and peer production.”
This seems to me a healthier community-oriented process that I hope Iowa City turns to. Perhaps the “Lens” train has left the station (perhaps not), but it would be refreshing and inspiring if Iowa City chose to create a public space that would be developed by commons principles, that starts from the people and place itself and keeps the broader community at the center of the process and the result. The Iowa City community, Jim Maynard and Project GREEN more or less asked for that for Black Hawk Mini Park over 40 years ago, and even then, they achieved only partial success. I hope someday our community can boast a signature public space that is truly a testament to the commons.
Thomas Dean mourns the loss of Black Hawk Mini Park. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 189.