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November 4, 2012

Create a Commons in Your Own Front Yard

How a public bench transformed a suburban neighborhood

It’s not hard to start a commons revival in your neighborhood. In fact, as Dave Marcucci discovered, a simple bench can do the trick. After attending a Project for Public Spaces training course in 2005, Marcucci came away inspired by the idea that every neighborhood needed places for people to gather. He returned home to Mississauga, Ontario determined to make his house, which occupies a prime corner lot, one of the great places within his neighborhood.

Marcucci started by tearing out the fencing at the corner of his front yard. As he got to work landscaping the area and constructing a bench, he received a lot of quizzical comments. “Why don’t you build a bench for yourself in the backyard?” He would answer,” the bench is for you.”

When the bench was finished, Marcucci and his neighbors threw a street party. The bench soon became a place where everyone in the neighborhood came to sit. Older people stop to rest on it during their evening strolls. Kids sit there as they wait for the school bus in the morning. Families out for a walk use it to take a breather.

The complications that Marcucci first anticipated have not come to pass. The bench has not been vandalized, nor has it attracted negative uses. It was installed without approval from the city, but no one has demanded to see a permit. “There have been no problems!” he exclaims. “It’s worked out really well. I’ve met my neighbors, and other people I’d never met before. It’s added a really friendly atmosphere to the neighborhood. You sit on the bench, and as people walk by, they stop and talk to you!” The bench is so popular that later that fall, a homeowner around the corner from Marcucci added his own bench for the whole neighborhood to use.

Adapted from the Great Neighborhood Book: A D-I-Y Guide to Placemaking written in collaboration with Project for Public Spaces and published by New Society Publishers. Ben Fried is now editor of Streetsblog, a leading website covering urban transportation and public space.