The in/visible commons

by Nidhi Srinivas

You watch them play chess on a table. The pieces move, but is that all that is visible? We walk through a park and there is a presence larger than just the greenery and the sight of others walking past us.

There are aspects of city life that are invisible, marked by the contours of the city, but ephemeral, inchoate, malleable, capable of much change. One of these aspects of city life is the spaces and resources that are shared by city residents, where it is hard to exclude others from such sharing. These sorts of spaces are the commons, and cities and city life depend on them greatly. Parks, rivers, greenways, community gardens, bike lanes, chess tables, even bus stops, are obvious examples. But even more private spaces offer a sense of the commons, such as the excitement and intensity of social life in a street market, or a cafe.

The commons rely on the invisible to make the visible valuable. In this sense, a park is not simply the addition of greenery with families, pedestrians, dogs, and strollers. It is the social practices that enmesh and weave together the way this commons is used. Without these invisible infrastructure the commons would not exist. In general parks discourage litter. People using the park try to accommodate one another (even in a city as busy and impersonal as New York City). Different uses aggregate into shared practices– rollerblading, bicycling, sitting on a bench, playing chess…

Recognizing the invisible then, ultimately, is a call to respect the mysterious and many ways that we, in cities recognize and adapt to each other. But it is not only this heeding of the other– it is also an opportunity to make the invisible a basis for further sharing, so that slowly layers of urban life are gradually uncovered, and further shared among all of us who inhabit these spaces.