Building Commons and Community
An expert in community design shares his insights, experiences and lessons learned from more than forty years creating neighbourhood commons. Karl Linn truly appreciated what was needed to make a public space that everyone could enjoy.
Author: Karl Linn (New Village Press, 2007)
Reviewed by Leszek Apouchtine, re:place magazine
Karl Linn documents an extraordinary career in Building Commons and Community
. Although the book feels complete, it is unfortunately not as extensive as Linn originally envisioned as his unfortunate passing meant he did not finish all the chapters he had planned.
Regardless of this, there is a lot of inspiring work that is detailed in his writing and in the hundreds of photos that are found throughout the book. Each chapter typically deals with one project of building a commons – some are intended to be long lasting, while others are temporary set-ups for a particular event.
What is clear in all the stories of building neighbourhood commons is how passionate Linn is about including the community that the public space is meant to serve. He brings in local professionals to help with construction, local artists to help give life to the space and, most importantly, he is constantly talking to residents of all races, backgrounds and ages to ensure that the commons being constructed will be of true value to everyone in the neighbourhood. He recruits volunteers from the community to help with the planning and building so that everyone feels an instant connection with the space.
One chapter that is particularly insightful is titled Nighbourhood Commons in Perspective: Lessons Learned in the 1960s
. Here Linn looks back at many of his early projects where he sought to help poorer neighbourhoods that suffered from a lack of safe public gathering spaces. Going back to some of these commons 20 or 40 years later he finds that many of them have fallen into disrepair or have been demolished.
As he revisits these spaces where he had seen so much hope and community building years earlier he examines what went wrong and what lessons he learned from the process. His sadness and regret are palpable as he often (and probably unfairly) blames himself or questions whether he could have done more to protect the commons he helped create. All of these insights and experiences culminate in the end of the book in the chapter Foundations of Commons Building
. Every urban planner, landscape architect, politician and architect could probably learn something from these last few pages, even if they didn’t go through the much more valuable experience of reading this book from cover to cover.
Another four chapters are dedicated to the construction of temporary commons for a certain event, including a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and a gathering space created in the lobby of a hotel for a conference. Although seemingly much different than building a neighbourhood commons filled with trees, benches and perhaps gardens or a playground, Linn finds many of the same guiding principles apply whether the public space is intended to last for years or just a few days. It’s all about ensuring people can enjoy, interact with and connect to the space.
Linn is so careful to credit all the different individuals, organizations and companies that helped in constructing each commons that it can sometimes take away from the interesting narrative and begin to feel a bit more like an Academy Award acceptance speech. This is a minor criticism, and it’s hard to fault someone who is so considerate in making sure that so many people are recognized and thanked.
This is a must-read for those who are involved with community planning or design, but is also simply an enjoyable read for anyone interested in some remarkable stories of community building. There is a lot in this book that is inspirational and it seems that we are fortunate that Linn's legacy will be felt not only through this book but in the many spaces he helped create and the people whose lives he touched along the way.
One thing is quite clear; the world needs more people like Karl Linn.
To find out more about this fascinating person, visit the Karl Linn website.
Leszek Apouchtine is one of the founding editors at re:place. His is now working on a new website devoted to going out in Vancouver, which is planned to launch in September, 2009.