“Civic Imagination: The Urban Commons”

“Civic Imagination: The Urban Commons” is a year-long inquiry into the urban commons, housed at The New School’s University Transdisciplinary Graduate Lab, which seeks direct sharing of ideas and skills between students and faculty trained in different disciplines.

Our lab includes students and professors from disciplines of Design, Management and Architecture, with professional training in Organizational Change, Urban Planning, and Public Policy. As part of this initiative we are also part of an experimental collaboration with Sheila Foster, University Professor at Fordham University; Christian Iaione, Director of LabGov and Associate Professor of Public Law at LUISS University; Kakee Scott, PhD Candidate, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University & Visiting Researcher, DESIS Lab; and Dimeji Onafuwa, Design Researcher & PhD Candidate, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University.

Members of the “Urban Commons” lab over the course of this year included Nidhi Srinivas and Eduardo Staszowski (faculty); Gonzalo Rovegno Rocha, Federico Zuleta Rios, Courtney Loiacono, Lissa Fedrizzi, Younghun Kim, Rachel Murray, Maria Isabel Saffon Sanin, Rosemary Santos, and Cynthia Warner.

Our lab hosted a panel and conversation at the Verge 2017 conference at Parsons, on “The Invisibility of the Commons.” Through this we were able to expand our inquiry to a wider group who both enriched the inquiry and can subsequently build upon this work at their own institutions in their own ways.

At our Verge conversation, we gathered people from fields including design, academia, local government, policy law, and parks conservancies, with a shared interest in the urban commons. Our goals were to:

  • Document current uses, relationships, and interactions in the urban commons, around 14th street in Manhattan.
  • Imagine new uses, relationships, and interactions in this area, and
  • Explore strategies for protecting, growing and more deeply understanding the Urban Commons and commoning, and how such commons can evolve in the future.

By the Urban Commons we mean spaces and resources that are shared in urban settings. These include small-scale sharing such as an exchange of skills; they also include co-habiting spaces such as parks and community gardens. We chose 14th street as a test-bed for studying the urban commons. About 2.5 miles long, the street spans Manhattan East to West, crossing distinct and quite different neighborhoods, from the Lower East Side (Loisada) to Chelsea and the Meat Packing district. This initiative is part of the New School’s University Transdisciplinary Lab.


Many of us saw “with new eyes” in our field observations, exploring with curiosity our urban physical and social surroundings. We moved from taking the city-as-arranged as a given, to imagining new uses and arrangements. Now we are asking, how can we activate parts of 14th Street to amplify or manifest acts of commoning?

We surfaced unknown and unanticipated hopes for the future of the 14th Street urban landscape, with various ideas concerning nature and rest, community, and mobility. Some of the new arrangements and uses we imagined were

  • 14th street currency.
  • Hubs of interaction and respite among the rushed flow of pedestrians.
  • The first commons-based transportation network / infrastructure through a complementary circuit.
  • Pop up maker spaces in abandoned or underused buildings, to collaborate on joint projects that create new ideas for the use of public space in a particular neighborhood.





  • Conducted observations of 14th Street in Manhattan
  • Analyzed field observations by clustering photos tied to themes like “abundance,” “in conflict,“ “wasteful,” “restrictive,” “underutilized,” “open,” and “modified”
  • Wrote love letters to 14th Street that highlighted the positive, the painful, and the future possibility of the space(s)
  • Applied frameworks for categorizing acts of commoning: Small or large acts? Acts that regenerate, maintain, extract, or degrade? Acts that share or cooperate?
  • Analyzed specific acts of commoning through the lenses of typical challenges and typical strategies related to commoning


This engagement with participants at the Verge conference built a network of co-researchers who can contribute to this inquiry from diverse fields and perspectives. Our lab group looks forward to sharing more about our inquiry soon!