As part of On the Commons’ efforts to strengthen commons connections and reinvigorate public life in communities, I was invited to Winona, Minnesota—a city of 27,000 on the Mississippi River 135 miles south of Minneapolis. During a two-day residency sponsored by Winona State University, I met with the newly elected mayor, a city council member, the director of parks and recreation, business owners, citizen leaders and university students, and faculty and staff. I also spoke to four classes, participated in media interviews, and gave a public talk.
In two discussions at the Blue Heron Coffee shop—a hive of activity from morning to night with an attached bookstore, The Book Shelf—we explored the value of commons-based approaches to issues as varied as transforming the underused riverfront park into a true community commons, reducing tensions between student renters and homeowners in campus area neighborhoods, providing a secure economic base for all citizens of Winona, and promoting the area as a cultural and outdoor recreation destination.
A theme coming up in all these conversations was that when you recognize that some things belong to everyone—including generations to come—it inspires and empowers you to find new possibilities that benefit the community as a whole. In short, the commons is not just an interesting idea, but also a practical approach that can be applied in solving immediate problems.
One topic looming over every discussion during my time in Winona was the recent explosion of frac sand mining—the fine-grained sand found up and down the Mississippi valley that is essential to the environmentally damaging process of fracking to tap natural gas and oil deposits. Sand mining poses a number of environmental threats all its own, including hundreds of semi trucks barreling through town, health risks from a sudden increase in carcinogenic particulate matter, and the wanton destruction of bluffs and other land throughout the region. The core message of the commons—that water, land, and air must be managed with everyone’s interests in mind, including future generations—certainly brings some new light to this intense local debate and provides a clear framework that helps citizens stand up for all that we share together.
This approach builds on a long legacy of valuing and advancing the commons in Winona, which inhabits a picturesque setting between a riverfront dotted with wild islands and high bluffs rising to the west. Much of this land is in public hands thanks in part to John A. Latsch, a successful local grocer who bought up scenery he loved in the early 20th Century and bestowed it to the community.
Building on Winona’s Assets
Walking through Winona, I noticed a distinct sense of the commons in many forms. Venerable brick and stone buildings downtown hosted numerous coffee shops and taverns, which bring people together. The Mississippi River and the towering bluffs are both powerful presences that define the city.
On the opposite side of town away from the river, a large city park dominated by Lake Winona offers five miles of lakeside trails, a band shell, recreational opportunities, and an artist-created water fountain—the latter is the result of an earlier collaboration between local residents, On the Commons, and the Heart of the Beast Theater, based in Minneapolis.
Winona State University’s 9,000 students enjoy a scenic, pedestrian-friendly campus thanks to a visionary plan that closed a number of streets to motor vehicles. I really appreciated the walkable campus as I made my way between classroom visits, an interview at the campus radio station, a meeting with environmental activists at the nearby Mugby Junction coffee shop, and my public talk in a university lecture hall.
Apart from these physical commons, Winona claims a bounty of social commons much larger than you might expect in a city this size. By sheer good luck, I came to town at very same time as a citywide celebration of Rockwell Kent—one of my favorite artists whose prints of wilderness scenes, rural people and mythological tales evoke the grandeur of our common heritage. Kent had lived in Winona in 1912 and 1913 working as an architectural contractor.
The festival was a collaboration of many organizations, with events at the impressive Winona County History Center, the much trafficked Winona Public Library (in the same room where Kent mounted one of his first art shows), and his work was also on display at galleries at Winona State and Saint Mary’s University, as well as the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (which also features work by Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne, and Winslow Homer). A symposium on Kent was held at Winona State and an original play about his time in Minnesota staged at the local Theatre du Mississippi. And that’s not all when it comes to culture: the city also sports celebrated Shakespeare and Beethoven Festivals in the summertime.
Taken together these commons assets add up to priceless community wealth, which if recognized by Winona residents as something they own together can form the basis for tackling problems and seizing opportunities in the years to come. On the Commons and Winona citizens will follow up with more discussions to find ways the principles and practices can make a better community for everyone.