From the Winter 2009 edition of The City, Eric O. Jacobsen writes on redeeming the commons.
Driving from Seattle to Steven’s Pass along Highway 2, takes you right through a small city called Monroe. Nestled near the base of the Cascade Mountains and skirting the meandering path of the Skykomish River, this town of 16,000 could very well be a compact oasis of civilization to rival anything one would find in Switzerland or in the Lake District of England. But Monroe is nothing of the sort. It is an ugly collection of strip malls, oversized signs, and utility wires. In short, it is pretty much indistinguishable from most places you are likely to see when driving from one destination to another in this country.
We’ve come to expect this kind of baseline ugliness in our small towns and even in many of our major cities as well. But why should the public realm in one of the richest and most advanced civilizations in the world look this way? Isn’t the public square where we are supposed to show the world and ourselves what we are capable of when we work together? What do such low expectations about the visual culture of our public realm tell us about ourselves and about our values? I think that this regrettable condition may very well be connected to two valuable words that have virtually dropped out of our national lexicon in the past few generations.
The words civic and commons represent important aspects of our shared life that have been badly obscured, undergoing subtle transformations from being concrete notions to abstractions. This fact is especially concerning because there seems to be so little awareness of how these important words atrophied in the recent past, and because in understanding the special case the commons, we can achieve in part a redemption of our civic life.
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