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The Commons: Thoughts from Madison

Aug 17, 2011

By Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

This past June I had the pleasure of attending the Congress for the New Urbanism conference (CNU 19) in Madison, Wisconsin. Never having been to Madison, I arrived with no prior knowledge about the city, and was wholly unprepared for the strong sense of the commons that I experienced there.

Madison is quite unique in its city planning; a small downtown set on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and located in its pivotal center is the state capital building.Completed in 1917, this imposing white domed structure forms the terminus of each radial street in a rigid 8-point symmetrical geometry.The immediate surroundings of the Capitol grounds are a formal, tree-lined park that forms a significant green space in the center of the city.This is markedly different from our Washington state Capitol in Olympia, which is set away from the urban center in a campus setting with other legislative facilities.

(Photo Credit:

(Photo Credit: alumroot @ Flickr)

(Photo Credit: VIA Architecture)


At VIA and the Community Design Studio, we talk about rediscovering “The Commons”.Wikipedia defines this as a term that refers to resources that are collectively owned or shared between or among communities, and attributes to Peter Barnes several characteristics of commons: “The first is that the commons cannot be commodified – and if they are – they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that unlike private property, the commons is inclusive rather than exclusive — its nature is to share ownership as widely, rather than as narrowly, as possible. The third aspect is that the assets in commons are meant to be preserved regardless of their return of capital.” (Reference 1)Although commons can refer to any collective cultural asset, from an urban design perspective, the commons is associated with public space.Civic in character, the commons is used for a variety of community gatherings such as celebrations, or any other kind of event dedicated to public assembly and enjoyment.The traditional village green once served this function, and in a larger city, public squares, parks and streetscapes now also become the milieu for communal urban life.

(Photo Credit: VIA Architecture)

(Photo Credit: Berkeley image bank)

During my few days in Madison, the capitol grounds provided two excellent illustrations of the use of the commons as the spatial backdrop for collective expression.On a Friday evening, there was a gathering of protestors opposing provisions in the state’s Budget Repair Bill proposed to restrict public employee collective bargaining and address a state budget shortfall.This was one of a series of protests at the capitol that had occurred over the previous few months, and this particular evening’s gathering was peaceful, accompanied by significant police presence, and with the other activities of a Madison summer evening carrying on in the immediate surroundings.

(Photo Credit: John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal)

The next morning at dawn, with no trace of the gathering of the prior evening, the Dane County Farmer’s Market was in full swing.Operating continuously since 1972, this market is the largest producer-only farmer’s venue in the country.Tents are set up around the entire perimeter of the capitol square, with so many customers each week that pedestrian flow operates in a counter-clockwise direction only.

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The demonstration of abundance in early June, in comparison to the products of our record-cool Northwest spring, was staggering.Madison is considered a national hot spot for farmer-chef connections and is the home of many restaurants notable for their celebration of local cuisine.With this kind of bounty outside their front doors, it is easy to see why:

(Photo Credit: VIA Architecture)

Among the keynote speakers at the Madison CNU gathering was Andreas Duany, one of the leaders of the New Urbanist philosophy. In his 2011 book on Agrarian Urbanism (Reference 2), Duany discusses some flaws associated with New Urbanism that have become apparent with the “diminished circumstances confronting the 21st century”.Among these is the assumption that social interaction would be based around retail shopping as leisure occupation, which has now been proven unsound as Americans readjust their priorities and adapt to a new economic reality.Duany proposes that the farmer’s market (resulting from surrounding agrarian activities) becomes the new urban condenser, and that societies coalesce around two major activities – the selling and exchange of food, and the community hall as gathering place.Madison provides an interesting demonstration of this approach; using the backbone of the civic space to support both the energy of the market and the passionate beliefs of its citizens.It is helpful to look to cities like Madison as precedents that demonstrate a more deeply rooted understanding of what the commons should be, rather than to models of newer development that often apply a ‘surface treatment’ of the commons by over-utilizing retail to simulate civic life.

We have written previously about the Transition Towns movement and the desire by many communities to rediscover the power of the collective.Madison is an inspiring model of a town that is using both its historic infrastructure and its present-day vitality to strengthen urban-rural connections and maintain the importance of its commons.As designers we can continue to be mindful of the importance of our public spaces, and to ensure that our community assets include well-designed, appealing and appropriately scaled gathering spaces that serve our civic needs and reinforce the sense of place that expresses our communities.

Reference 1:
Reference 2: “Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism,” Andreas Duany and DPZ, 2011, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.