Monday, January 23, 2017

Where is Baltimore's commons?

A protest gathering where 33th Street meets Charles Street happens not on a place but on a streetcorner and can only occur when police block traffic. This makes my below thoughts about urban plazas and the commons relevant to Baltimore in particular. Therefore, I place my article that addresses the role of the public space and commons in the modern city in a slightly modified form also here on the local site.
The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and agonistically, to produce a common if per­ petually changing and transitory life. The Creation of the Urban Commons, by David Harvey 2012
Aside from whatever political conclusions one can draw from millions of people gathering in over 600 US cities and around the globe from Toronto to Sidney and from Warsaw to Helsinki, from Nairobi to Durban and from Madrid to Tokyo, aside from what that means for the US, the President or the international world order, it certainly proves that people still take their real bodies to real places to real encounters for real causes in real cities. Facebook, Twitter and all the rest are not substitutes but enablers of such gatherings. What spaces do cities offer for such gatherings?
Boston Commons on 1/21/17

When times get tough people yearn for the comfort of company, for the support that comes from togetherness, the consolation from others who share a concern and an emotion. From those gatherings spring song, compassion and satisfaction in moments of great anxiety and uncertainty that lone tapping into social media doesn't provide. Does it matter where these meet-ups occur?
Commoning has to do with difference, not commonality, it should always be expanding those who can participate (Stavros Stavrides, Professor of Architecture Athens) 
Naturally those gatherings happen in cities, in places where density is high enough for people to get there on short notice and where transit is available to haul large crowds without the extra space needed to park 65 the square feet of sheet-metal that is the automobile.

Sociologists have long observed that cities provide anonymity and group comfort at once. Cities celebrate diversity and commonality. Stadiums, bars, playgrounds and golf courses are manifestations of places designed the individual to step out of the anonymity by showing the flag of a particular allegiance or interest in a space specifically designed for the purpose. If the purpose is wider  "the commons", a "flex space" for public interest in general is needed, a space that exists in the abstract as a concept and also in the concrete, as a physical urban space.
Baltimore protest, hemmed in at a street corner

In 1968 the biologist Garrett Harding was trying to slay the notion that the commons could work in an essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons in which he "proved" that the commons as a concept of the greater good are destined to fail where individuals act on their individual short term self interest. In 2000 Harvard Public Policy professor Robert Putnam reflected in his book  Bowling Alone on the  the decline of social capital during the height of suburbanization and attested America an increasing disconnectedness. That was 17 years ago, before the renaissance of cities, before Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize by proving how the commons can work, before the Sharing Economy became a term, before the Occupy Movement and before the inauguration of a controversial American President that caused the maybe largest collective gathering of humans around one cause on a single day in human history.
[..] the problem of the commons today is that we still tend to think of it as a common resource, whether it be oceans and rivers or fish stocks.This is a misunderstanding. Because we cannot have a common resource without a common strategy for managing it. Elinor Ostrom argued that the commons requires a set of rules. She won the Nobel prize in economics for proving that these resources need not succumb to the so-called “tragedy of the commons” (exploitation by someone taking more than their share) if a system of checks and balances prevails. And so, rather than a resource, the commons is a process, a set of social relations by which a group of people share responsibility for, yes, a garden or even the governance of their neighbourhood. (Guardian)
Cities today are emerging as key global players in a new world order where nation states are oscillating between dysfunction and a new nationalism. In crisis the idea of commons asserts itself. Urban spaces become the synonym for movements, whether through the protest movements on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Gezi Park in Istanbul or public spaces in Athens or the many spaces that the Occupy movement turned into temporary commons.
Florence, Italy, January 21, 2017

What does this mean for the spatial organization of cities? Should there be a new focus on the idea of the commons, both, as a value concept and as a space? Should  mayors, planners and urban designers be motivated to create urban spaces that facilitate gathering and the pursuit of community? Much of the recent discussion about a Commons has centered on self organization and how citizens themselves can create and maintain the spaces and refuges they need. But how about the traditional public plaza, the public space that, indeed is created and maintained by government?

Looking at the images of the protest around the world gives a snapshot of where people gather. In general one has to say cities fall short when it comes to gathering places for people that would be worthy of being called the commons. There are exceptions: Washington DC has the biggest commons of all in what is known as the Mall.
The Mall in DC on January 21, 2017
Boston has a space that literally is called The Commons, in Berlin events take place in front of the Brandenburg Tor, in Paris at the Eiffel Tower or the Place de la Bastille, in London on the Trafalgar Square, in Madrid at the Plaza Mayor. But the Austins, Denvers, San Diegos or Baltimores cannot point to a space that would be generally regognized as the heart of the city, as a central event space or as something that could be even remotely considered as the commons. Most cities still have given way too much space to the automobile to have anything left to offer for people to gather in large groups or have pedestrian oriented festivities, even though the popularity of gathering in public spaces has increased in recent years alongside the new popularity of cities.
Portland Pioneer Square during the World Cup

One of the new ways of experiencing a common space have been the remote broadcasts of el mundial de futbol (the soccer world cup) on jumbo-trons and large screens on urban plazas around the world. Often traffic has to be stopped and re-routed for those big events but wouldn't it be nice to have commons year round and all the time? Especially since Baltimore lost its "free-speech" area at the McKeldin Plaza.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Commons, Political Transformations and Cities, David Bollier
The Guardian about Urban Commons

Not a commons

Charles Street at Homewood: Not a commons


  1. The two obvious places would be where the Book Festival has convened in recent years -- Mount Vernon Square and the promenade at the Inner Harbor.

  2. Or the promenade at Druid Hill Park.

  3. Actually there really is only one choice, its just unfortunate that it has been almost abandoned in recent years. This is a great public space specifically designed for public commons and events by one of baltimore's greatest architects...War Memorial Plaza. Imagine a few world cup screens set up here! Its too bad it is often avoided by most Baltmoreans.