“Our city forebears conceived of and created a variety of civic assets to meet the particular needs of their times. Rich patrons, such as Andrew Carnegie, created public libraries for the democratization of knowledge; private companies built transportation systems that would ultimately convert to publicly owned and managed transit; faith organizations organized schools, settlement houses and community centres, many of which would be converted to public, secular use; and governments created post offices, train stations, public schools and parks to further the healthy functioning of the city.”
Re-Imagining the Civic Commons
 
 

Civic commons are perhaps best understood as those places “where we do together what we can’t do alone.” These are the words of Mary Rowe, the Executive Vice-President of the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), a U.S. partner of Cities for People.

 
Today the commons are our streets, parks, squares and much more – places for people to “celebrate, learn, rest, play, trade, make key decisions, express collective aspirations, and provide for themselves and one another.”

The commons in pre-industrial Britain were areas in which any citizen was allowed to graze cattle. They were quite literally “commonly” owned by everyone. Today the commons are our streets, parks, squares and much more – place for people to “celebrate, learn, rest, play, trade, make key decisions, express collective aspirations, and provide for themselves and one another” (Re-Imagining the Civic Commons, MAS).

Key among these facilities are what are called civic assets, vital pieces of infrastructure that typically were built with public funds – post offices, libraries, bus yards and so on. In 2016, many of these assets are underused, abandoned or have been turned over to strictly private use. Repurposing our civic assets has become an important tool in revitalizing the commons.

The Civic Assets Project, led by Talia Dorsey of The Commons Inc. in Montreal, has worked to identify the city’s existing assets and organize them according to a taxonomy, which will facilitate a broader conversation about how they might be redesignated and repurposed. The project is also focused on pilot projects that will test its methodology and replicability.

 
 
One can also think of civic assets as “strategic infrastructure.”

The work of classification entails not only organizing assets into categories – religious, health care, industrial and many more – but also defining their abstract relationships to the wider city. The project leaders note in their report that “civic assets resist simple classification such as ‘public.’ Commercial private enterprises can become civic assets, when their open and public nature makes them become focal points of convergence for multiple communities and users.” Montreal’s Schwartz’s Deli, for example, is an exemplar of the city’s vibrant Jewish culture and attracts local and international visitors in the tens of thousands.

One can also think of civic assets as “strategic infrastructure.”

A specific project conducted by a different set of actors shares a similar focus on breathing new life into old buildings. St. Joseph’s Church in Little Burgundy is one of the oldest religious buildings in Montreal. Built by the Sulpicians, it was finished in 1861 and became a key pillar of a local, vibrant community. But a century and a half later, with religious participation declining in all of Quebec, St. Joseph’s had become chronically underutilized. 

 
 

Le Salon 1861 – historic Montreal church gets a second life (in french only)

Natalie Voland, of the real estate company Quo Vadis, saw an opportunity. Voland negotiated with corporate, non-profit, university and municipal representatives in and around the neighbourhood to develop a shared vision for how St. Joseph’s could be turned into a multi-purpose community hub, retaining the building’s historic function of bringing people together. A deal was inked in 2015 and Quo Vadis became the new owner of the beautiful, neo-Gothic building.

To be known as Le Salon 1861, the revitalized space will support Montreal’s burgeoning ecosystem of social innovators, entrepreneurs and economic developers. It will provide a co-working space and serve as a venue for workshops, events and networking. It will collaborate with McGill University to offer applied learning opportunities for students and researchers, and will have active partnerships with several local organizations, including a fitness centre and the Tyndale St-Georges Community Centre , which provides educational programming for youth and adults in this predominantly lower-income area.

In the spring of 2015, the McConnell Family Foundation approved an investment in Le Salon 1861, seeing the project as an innovative approach to repurposing this vital piece of Montreal history for the public good.
 

 
RE-IMAGINING THE CIVIC COMMONS “At a global convening at Manhattan’s Civic Hall, the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) released Re-Imagining the Civic Commons, a first-of-a-kind analysis on the state of the ‘civic commons’ – the constellation of shared assets like parks, libraries, post offices, public pools and churches, which have historically served as the backbone of urban life. The analysis was produced with the support of the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. MAS Vice President for Strategy Mary Rowe said, ‘Here in New York, the critical role of these gathering places was made all too clear in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when libraries and Starbucks coffee shops transformed overnight into disaster relief hubs. But neighbors know that these civic assets help knit communities together in quiet, every day ways as well. When we shutter our libraries and turn our churches into condos, what’s left of the creative community collision that draws dreamers and innovators to cities in the first place?’ The report was released to an audience of urban leaders from Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York as part of a global conversation entitled ‘Building a Sustainable Civic Commons.’ During this two-day event, participants explored the role that civic commons play in urban livability and economic competitiveness, and discussed investment and programming strategies to strengthen them. The event was hosted by MAS in partnership with Evergreen CityWorks, Cities for People, Community Design Resource Center, Boston Society of Architects, Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy, and with the support of TD Bank, Maytree Foundation, Ideas That Matter, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, and Stantec.” From a 2015 press release by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS). Photo by Wally Gobetz, Flickr

RE-IMAGINING THE CIVIC COMMONS

“At a global convening at Manhattan’s Civic Hall, the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) released Re-Imagining the Civic Commons, a first-of-a-kind analysis on the state of the ‘civic commons’ – the constellation of shared assets like parks, libraries, post offices, public pools and churches, which have historically served as the backbone of urban life. The analysis was produced with the support of the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

MAS Vice President for Strategy Mary Rowe said, Here in New York, the critical role of these gathering places was made all too clear in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when libraries and Starbucks coffee shops transformed overnight into disaster relief hubs. But neighbors know that these civic assets help knit communities together in quiet, every day ways as well. When we shutter our libraries and turn our churches into condos, what’s left of the creative community collision that draws dreamers and innovators to cities in the first place?

The report was released to an audience of urban leaders from Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York as part of a global conversation entitled Building a Sustainable Civic Commons. During this two-day event, participants explored the role that civic commons play in urban livability and economic competitiveness, and discussed investment and programming strategies to strengthen them.

The event was hosted by MAS in partnership with Evergreen CityWorks, Cities for People, Community Design Resource Center, Boston Society of Architects, Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy, and with the support of TD Bank, Maytree Foundation, Ideas That Matter, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, and Stantec.”

From a 2015 press release by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS).

Photo by Wally Gobetz, Flickr