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An Infusion of Commons Thinking Can Transform the Future of Our Communities

David Motzenbecker of the Minneapolis Planning Commission explores participatory planning

Ideas and practices inspired by the commons are giving rise to a new commons movement. So it follows that an appreciation of the commons can also foster a fresh perspective on how we undertake organizing efforts and exercise leadership for social change in many arenas.

At OTC, we refer to to people engaging with groups and communities to create and another sense of what’s possible for the future as animateurs—which means, in essence, breathing life into a situation.

To highlight this role, we are featuring a series of articles about animateurs and their work. We begin with David Motzenbecker, president of the Planning Commission in Minneapolis who along with some of the city’s neighborhood groups and design professionals is exploring how to make the planning process that shapes the future of our communities more co-creative and therefore more commons-based.

It began with a simple enough thought: “There aren’t nearly enough people here.”

On a fall afternoon in 2007, I was attending a public meeting held by the Minneapolis Planning Department to garner citizens’ input on their latest revision to the City’s Comprehensive Plan – The Minneapolis Plan for Sustainable Growth. As President of the City Planning Commission, my charge is to steward the vision for the growth of the city as outlined in its comprehensive plan. One definition of stewardship is “a person using every talent and repeatedly sacrificing desires to do the right thing.” Wasteful actions or not doing everything possible to achieve a positive outcome is contradictory to notion of stewardship. It was the sensation of just going through the motions at this particular meeting, not really embracing the democratic notion of people shaping their own city, that struck me as wasteful. The attendance, comments, and results of meetings like this one led me to the conclusion that the planning commission wasn’t stewarding anything but the opinions of city staff and our own points of view.

I’m 40 years old. I’m a Landscape Architect and lover of all things urban. I cherish what an amazing city Minneapolis is. I know that the backbone of any true democracy or democratic process is the degree to which it embraces the notion of the commons – when people are actively engaged in crafting and influencing what belongs to them, the results are richer. I am dedicated to preserving and enhancing these qualities and methods for myself and for future generations. I’m sure many of you feel similarly about your own cities and towns. And I know that people here care about Minneapolis and, if given the opportunity to truly engage in the nitty-gritty of city building from the most grass-roots level, they will get involved. Why? Because they are already building the commons everyday—engaging in their neighborhood organizations, volunteering for charitable organizations, holding events to improve the human condition. But they were not offering input to the City of Minneapolis’ Comprehensive Plan.

Public process as it exists today is not a desirable commons-based, inclusive, creative, bottom-up assertion of ideas by the people—although that is what it pretends to be.

It’s actually an expert-driven, one-way dissemination of ideas from the top.

What prevents us from having the citizenry engaged in planning from the outset? The answer, as Robert Reich illuminated in “The Power of Public Ideas”, goes back to the era of Woodrow Wilson and F.D.R. when “expert choice” was the preferred method for implementing policies, which even the public itself was solidly behind at that time. Public interest was deemed non-existent – it came to be seen as merely multiple groups competing for influence and power. As Reich points out, “instead of finding the common good…the new language of public management saw the task in pluralist terms – making ‘tradeoffs,’ ‘balancing’ interests, engaging in ‘policy choices,’ and weighing the costs and benefits.”

This brought us to the current process of public participation: experts ruminate on an idea; which is then crafted into a plan or policy; this policy is then drafted and given to the “public” for their “input”. But that input is limited—it is received for only short period of time, and is seen as data to be reviewed for relevance by the expert. This basically means that the decision rests with a public official, who weighs the experts’ plans and then reviews public opposition before making his or her own decision. Do you see anything wrong with this model? What I see is a process where the public’s sole role is reactive, attacking proposed changes. They have no say in actually creating the plans, no true integrated opportunity to express their ideas and visions.


It is well established that a sense of place helps form identity. People form distinct attachments to home, neighborhood, and city. While social attachment—to the people who live in that place—is greater than physical attachment, both types of attachment to place exist.

When people chooses a place – to live, work, play – it becomes part of their personal identity. This is why the reactions are so strong about planning decisions; it’s more than just the changing of a “place”, it’s perceived to be a threat to personal identity.

When people’s identities are threatened, emotions can flare– I see this quite often at public hearings here in Minneapolis. Threats to the identity of a place triggers people to resist change. The “experts” – myself included – usually have exponentially more information at their disposal to frame their opinions and decisions than the public, which oftentimes possesses only the limited information of a staff report picked up at the beginning of the meeting. These reports often do not include the same details of the case that are given to the experts.

A process that hinges on providing only limited information to the general public can exacerbate the frustration and heighten the emotions felt in response to the issue a hand. I believe we should all have the right (and a rite, since we also need a new vision for the rite of engagement) to interact with our governing institutions from the outset, because what is being discussed affects us all – it is based in the commons. This means, among other things, that citizens should have access to all the information that pertains to the issue. Our country was founded on the idea of the ‘commonwealth’, wealth being interpreted as ‘well-being’. This sense of common belonging – the essence of democracy – must be the starting point for a new approach to collaborative community engagement.

Robert Reich notes that bureaucracies overwhelmingly reinforce “expert opinion” because they cannot imagine a method of public engagement that would foster “an efficient way of reaching agreement in so large a crowd.” He notes that “identification of alternative solutions is primarily a technical task for which the average person has no particular competence or relevant knowledge.” This approach discourages—even disenfranchises— those who might want to participate in the process by offering fresh ideas and important insights.

As long as we continue to follow this tired old model of public engagement, the public will continue to feel indifferent, angry, and cynical.


Let’s now contrast the current system with a more commons-based approach. In this approach, experts and the public begin the process together with shared ideas and collective creativity. Challenges are framed and ideas are vetted from multiple perspectives; detailed information is provided via multiple channels; threats to people’s deeply felt identity with a place are considered from the beginning and help shape the plan or policy; a draft is written by both the experts and the public together – offering recognition and fostering pride in its creation; engagement has occurred from beginning to end.

A commons-based process builds early and cross-jurisdictional collaborations to shape a shared vision. The best ideas do not always come from a lone genius or experts, but rather are an amalgam of many ideas nurtured together. If someone is truly involved, deeply and intimately, in a process they take ownership in it. It matters a lot to them that they are being taken seriously and listened to. Taking the time to do this is—to some degree—a sacrifice, as we all have busy schedules. Yet, engagement is an act of stewardship that should not be ignored.

This understanding about open-sourced ideas generating improvements in many levels of public policy is at the heart of a new commons-based participatory process for a new era. Think of the creative power possible in your neighborhood, your city, your region, when this process reaches its potential?


I think it’s clear we need new ways for community involvement in important planning decisions. After the meeting where I was dismayed to see so few people, I began ruminating on what kind of new vehicle people might use to enhance and translate their love for their city and its commons into action. If my friends and neighbors could easily access a document, like the entire Minneapolis Plan for Sustainable Growth, online, at any time they desired— and if the interface was simple and easy to use—they would be more willing and able to offer their opinions. If they were given action items, and could go online to represent their thoughts after putting the kids to bed, or while they’re at a coffeehouse on Saturday morning, they would be more engaged in building their city than by coming to a 4:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. public meeting on a cold winter night after a long day of work. And if my friends (with children, with full time jobs) would do this, younger generations who have grown-up in the globally-connected, collaborative universe that is the web, would certainly embrace it.

So, I began talking about ways in which Minneapolis could adopt this new collaborative technology, both as a tool and a supplemental way to gather public input. This idea was something the Mayor of Minneapolis understood and supported wholeheartedly. Not just for its possibilities for the comprehensive plan, but for the larger, more visionary capabilities that the technology holds for rethinking the entire public process.

By contrast, the staff of the Minneapolis Planning Department was hesitant to embrace the idea. By highlighting this hesitancy, I am simply pointing a spotlight on the current paradigm as it stands in most municipalities across the country. I can sympathize, being a trained professional myself, at the reaction planners would have at the suggestion we allow the general public to make such large-scale decisions?

In a truly democratic and healthy collaborative community, however, why shouldn’t citizens have a say in decisions that affect their future? After all, that is a component of stewardship. But the existing vehicle for public participation, which has been used for generations, has broken down.

Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan, January 2008

With these thoughts in mind, I set out to to find a new vehicle so the Minneapolis community could have this opportunity. I wanted to put the entire comprehensive plan draft on a wiki internet site for the public to view and edit. Ultimately, this first case study would be a very limited test of the idea. The American Society of Landscape Architects–MN Chapter agreed to host the wiki. The Minneapolis Planning Department agreed to allow the “Urban Design” chapter of the comprehensive plan, to be posted for public comment and editing.

The wiki remained live for a month-and-a-half. It attracted 473 unique visitors, was viewed 1,321 times and logged 189 changes. That’s an average of 4 changes and 11 new visitors per day. While that may seem small, this was an experiment known only to a small network of design professionals, which received minimal press, and no promotion from the city. So for me those numbers indicated success.

Unfortunately, the momentum wasn’t enough at the time to move this idea forward, despite numerous city planners and private-sector planners contacting me after the pilot and inquiring how they could use this tool in other plans they were working on.

It was after this that the City of Afton, Minnesota called to discuss the idea with me, and soon their entire comprehensive plan was online in a wiki format for comment by city residents. Then the City of Melbourne, Australia also posted their entire comprehensive plan to a wiki – citing the City of Afton (population: 2800) as an example.

Careleton College, November 2008

I next used the wiki format with Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. The college wanted a way to work with a local neighborhood group, gathering comments and engaging citizens about a new Arts Center being proposed. We offered questions and answers about the project, posted to a wiki, that residents could comment on or rewrite answers.

It was an marked success. The neighbors felt involved in a collaborative discussion. The college gained insights it wouldn’t have otherwise. The wiki process fostered further engagement and has strengthened the bond between the school and its neighbors.

North Loop Small Area Plan , Minneapolis, September 2009 to January 2010

The City of Minneapolis agreed to my idea of again testing the wiki idea on a Small Area Plan for the North Loop Neighborhood. The plan was placed on a wiki, but only after it had been drafted by city planners. Although not an ideal situation, I was happy to have the opportunity and intrigued by what I learned. Despite an educational briefing during a public meeting, extensive advertising through a neighborhood organization, and instructions on the web site itself – no one offered any editing changes on the document. Why? I believe it was due to multiple factors – unfamiliarity with the system, difficulty understanding the webpage, and a very text-dense front page.

But there was a success — 3 times as many people visited the wiki site as they did the city’s official site. This traffic was measured via Google Analytics and found to be driven mainly by Facebook and the neighborhood website. I concluded that if the front page interface could be made easier to understand, desirable to use (think iPhone/iPad), and have educational information paired with active editing capabilities, people would contribute their own ideas.

Commons activist David Bollier tells a story about Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh observing: “‘It takes thirty leaves to make the apple,’ he said. We in the West are so accustomed to thinking only about the apple that we tend to overlook the leaves, the tree and the ecosystem.”

Isn’t it time we changed that perspective?


How can we harness the idea-generating power of hundreds, or thousands of people? I strongly believe that new tools must be employed to enhance and refocus the current process of community participation. I have made strides towards this goal by using these new tools in ways previously untested. These tools include the use of Web 2.0 interfaces (wikis, blogs, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare), seen through the lens of the commons and sustainability, paired with face-to-face interaction.

Web 2.0 involves, according to Wikipedia, “giving users the free choice to interact or collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them.” One example is a wiki.

A wiki (originating from the Hawaiian language, and meaning “fast” or “quick”) is “…a collaborative web site comprised of the perpetual collective work of many authors. Similar to a blog in structure and logic, a wiki allows anyone to edit, delete or modify content that has been placed on the Web site using a browser interface, including the work of previous authors,” according to Webopedia.


Change is the only constant in our world, and being flexible in the face of change is the sign that a thoughtful and collaborative process has occurred. The importance of flexibility is simply highlighted by this Chinese idiom:

“The tender reed bends in the wind; the rigid one breaks.”

Taking that notion and applying it to the public process, we begin to understand that each project will have its own distinct process, as a single rigid methodology cannot be devised to facilitate all public engagement. Effective participation is best conducted on the assumption that each unique situation will require a unique design, using a new combination of these tools as part of an evolving cycle of action and reflection. Participation is also overtly “political” in that it is about human beings, power, and knowledge –- all of which are inherently complex and which together make for a potent mix that requires sensitivity and careful planning.

As Robert Reich says, “Rather than view debate and controversy as managerial failures that make policy making and implementation more difficult…they should be seen as natural and desirable aspects of the formation of public values, contributing to society’s self-understanding.”

We are entering a new era in which the earlier challenge of having no efficient way of gathering the insights of hundreds of thousands of people has been erased by the power of the world wide web and social media.

By embracing this new focus in engagement, we ensure innovation and resilience. This is done by creating a diverse social network in which the public (or any stakeholder: municipalities, neighborhoods, regions) can participate in making the rules, clearly understand the boundaries, and make use of tight feedback loops that ensure achievable resolutions. The fact is, people expect to participate in public decisionmaking but frequently are not allowed. By utilizing this approach, we re-ignite people’s inherent capacity to act and innovate – that over time has become lost to the realm of the “experts”.


Embedding this new commons-based participatory process into the way we think about and plan for the public realm will bring improvements in Minneapolis and nearly every other community around the world. This could have an enormous and everlasting effect on achieving our goals of creating places that are more sustainable and resilient.

Strangely enough, digital technologies are forcing us to recognize the power of the collective and social action. The results are terribly unsettling to established institutions and people in power. Just look at the gnashing of teeth that we see in the film industry, music business, journalism and many other industries. Venerable market structures are now under siege. A vast army of talented amateurs is challenging professionals. Cultural norms and expectations are changing.

As commons scholar and activist David Bollier notes “By contrast, it is evident that a great many Web 2.0 platforms have created enormous value by coordinating all sorts of decentralized talent that can only thrive in communities of social trust – places where you can contribute to something larger than yourself, build a reputation, and make an impact.”

*David Motzenbecker is a licensed Landscape Architect. He is an Associate Partner / Director of Landscape Architecture at BKV Group in Minneapolis. He currently serves as President & Mayor’s Representative for the Minneapolis City Planning Commission. “Contact him”:motzadio@gmail.com