The Civic Commons vision has elements that can be traced all the way back to Athenian democracy and the practice of citizens gathering regularly to deliberate about public issues. In more modern times, there have been two proposals that we’ve drawn some inspiration from. Both examples are centered around specific, special places serving as a hub for community learning and interaction. Although our vision is not as bound to the creation of a specific facility, these historically overlooked proposals are very much worthy of review.
Geddes’ Outlook Tower and the Civic Museum
In the 1890’s a Scottish scientist and town planner named Patrick Geddes used a tower located in the center of Edinburgh as a place where citizens “could study themselves and their culture in detail.” Each level of the Outlook Tower was dedicated to a specific scope of view. From the top, one could see out to the edges of the city; the top level was thus dedicated to local affairs. With each lower level, the scope widened.
The Outlook Tower may be a metaphor for intellectual co-operation, or it may be a center set up by the people of a city/region for learning, teaching and debating, with information lines to all other institutions in the area but independent—a center for exchanging ideas and intentions about the community, the place and the future, so that elected representatives have a clearer idea of what they represent. An Outlook Tower, you might say, is another step on the way to improving the design of democracy.
– Joyce Earley, “Sorting in Patrick Geddes’ Outlook Tower,” Places 7:3, 1991
Geddes went on to advocate that all major cities create such “civic museums” through which the public could vividly explore community development, impacts, and alternatives. The idea attracted some attention in the early 1900’s, but the vision was never implemented.
Lasswell’s Social Planetarium and Decision Seminar
In the 1950’s, a political scientist named Harold Lasswell recognized that cities were beginning to face changes and challenges on an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented complexity, yet citizens and decision-makers were ill-equipped to grapple with them. Lasswell proposed a new set of institutions to help with this situation. One he called the urban planetarium (or social planetarium), which would be a space in which visitors could explore vivid representations of the trajectory from past through present and to alternative futures. The concept was very much reminiscent of today’s interactive science museums, but with a focus on community and society rather than physical science.
In parallel with the social planetarium, Lasswell proposed the “Decision Seminar,” which would involve smaller groups using information-rich environments to assist them in making policy and decisions.
Our vision for the Commons includes the establishment of physical hubs that have the engaging, educational, perhaps even entertaining aspects of Lasswell’s social planetarium and Geddes’ civic museum. Our vision also involves the direct connection of such hubs with policy and decision-making structures and processes like Lasswell’s decision seminar. That said, our emphasis is first and foremost on fostering the cultural and social capacity that is needed regardless of the presence of special facilities like the social planetarium, and needed before full use can be made of such physical hubs.
It is remarkable that while the world has continued to become more interconnected, the issues more complex, and confusion ever-greater, and with all of the technology available to us today, proposals like those of Geddes and Lasswell remain unrealized. One can find numerous individual exhibits, activities, and events designed around particular contemporary issues, with some designed to elevate the quality of public dialogue around those issues for short episodes. There are also examples of ongoing, locally-based efforts that are doing some of what The Boise Commons will involve. These include the City Club of Seattle, the Jacksonville Council on Citizen Involvement, the Emerging Issues Commons at North Carolina State University, and the Demoscopio effort in Heraklion, Crete. However, no city, region, or nation has yet created a continuous institution specifically designed for the purposes of community-building, civic development, and participatory governance. The Commons effort is intended to address this critical gap in our public institutions.