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The City as a Commons: Talking innovation network at Evergreen Brick Works

Evergreen hosted four international speakers at the City as a Commons discussion at Evergreen Brick Works in March to discuss the ideas around a civic commons.
Top image caption: Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape leads The City as a Commons attendees and speakers on a tour of Evergreen Brick Works/Jorge Garza via Twitter

Published on April 26, 2017

Last month fellow city builders, thought leaders and community members joined us at Evergreen Brick Works to hear from four international innovators advancing transformative change in cities around the world — Julian Agyeman, Tessy Britton, Rony Jalkh and Gorka Espiau.

The presentations considered how citizen engagement and innovations rooted in participatory processes can lead to economic development and social cohesion. Speakers identified conditions that enable democratic access and increase the capacity of everyday citizens to self-organize so that the city itself acts as a “civic commons.”

The civic commons is the backbone of a city, serving the needs of residents and offering public benefit, a sense of belonging and economic opportunities. The commons is made up of a system of civic assets that includes parks, schools, ravines, libraries, post offices, museums, public spaces, as well as data and technology assets. Connecting and programming a city’s system of civic assets provides a platform through which to deliver a broad range of benefits to residents.

Mary Rowe, the deputy principal secretary for the Office of the Premier in Ontario said a civic commons is a place “where we do together what we can’t do alone."

The creation and governance of the city as a commons model is a challenging process but one that is gaining traction across the globe.

Julian Agyeman discussed his work on a new sharing paradigm that goes beyond current sharing economies such as Uber or Airbnb.

The sharing paradigm is not focused simply on commercial benefit but, more importantly, communal leadership, trust and collaboration. Agyeman's point is that sharing resources, ideas and decision making can improve the life and wellbeing of people in cities. In order to increase sharing, public spaces and commons are absolutely critical, as they serve functional, aesthetic and spiritual purposes in our cities.

Tessy Britton explained that our current planning systems and structures provide limited and inadequate opportunities to engage communities.

The system caters to a small segment of the population with access to time and resources. Through Participatory City, Britton recommends a new approach that mainstreams public participation by making it attractive, accessible, convenient and beneficial to everyone.

With the refugee crisis affecting much of the world today, Rony Jalkh’ s work on how the civic commons can be leveraged to make cities more inclusive, particularly for new immigrants and refugees, is timely. 

Jalkh sees placemaking as a tool for peacemaking insofar as public spaces can be used to generate social inclusion, public interaction and participation. Of course, doing so is not easy, and so he noted that building cities that are open to everyone requires courage, compassion and collaboration.

Finally, Gorka Espiau discussed the need to give everyone permission to be ‘change makers’ in their communities. To make lasting change at the community level, Espiau supports a movement-based approach that generates social permission to innovate and develop new social norms, the basis of city transformation.   

Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape concluded the event by bringing the discussion back to the Canadian context.

Canadian cities are at a turning point, said Cape. Investing in a civic commons is vital as we build a better Canada with flourishing cities.

A commons network will help cities share ideas, reduce real and perceived risk, test and prototype ideas, build trust, and scale solutions across Canada that can catalyze innovation, and build a competitive social and economic advantage for our cities.

We would like to take this moment to thank our esteemed guest speakers and attendees. We are excited to explore ways to collaborate as we continue to develop a network to scale inclusive urban innovation.