Common Ground in a Liquid City, my review notes for Winnipeg Internet Pundits / by Greg Gallinger

Common Ground in a Liquid City by Matt Hern is a series of essays about urbanization, specifically regarding Vancouver. Like any conversation about urbanism, Common Ground, argues in favour of density for the good of the city, the environment, and most of all the people who inhabit the city.

What makes Hern’s book unique is that each essay is written from a different place other than Vancouver. Hern uses his travels and experience in cities like New York, Istanbul, Thessaloniki (Greece), Montreal, Fort Good Hope (Northwest Territories), Portland, and Las Vegas, among others, and examines what makes these other cities tick, what is unique about them, what they are doing right/wrong, and how important lessons can be learned from these cities and applies them to the city he knows best, Vancouver.

The overarching thesis of the book is that Cities need density and diversity, but they need to evolve naturally through the hard work of citizens instead of leaving everything up to the city planners and developers. Hern argues that what makes a great city is not simply an abundance of people and places, but public spaces that the people have adopted as common space.

That’s my definition of urban vitality: constantly running into people who aren’t like you, who don’t think, look, or act like you, people who have fundamentally different values and backgrounds. And in that mix there is always the possibility to re-imagine and remake yourself- a world of possibility that is driven by public life and space, that at its best turns into common places and neighborhoods. That’s what makes a great city, not the shopping opportunities.

What caught my attention in Common Ground, is Hern’s DIY attitude, something a lot of Winnipeggers can relate to, and his commitment to community action.

Hern is in favour of direct community action to build sustainable cities. He has had much of his own success with this being instrumental in the organization of community potlucks, the Purple Thistle Centre (youth community institution), as well as the annual Car Free Vancouver Day. He encourages direct action efforts such as Critical Mass bike rides, but also creatively subversive acts like making your own speed bumps on residential streets in order to calm traffic when the City refuses.

Think about how this could be applied to Winnipeg, to your own neighbourhood.

Hern is adamant that cities must be inclusive, and that sustainable cities of the future must be made for everyone, not just the rich condo owners and developers. People, not profits, must be the core to the city, and cities, especially in North America, must come to terms with their history and be honest about it, instead of trying to rewrite it from the perspective of the colonial force.

This last part is particularly relevant to Winnipeg given our own colonial history.

In the book Hern uses the example of Stanley Park being forcibly taken from the Coast Salish peoples and developed into the urban park we are now familiar with. Vancouver’s official history tends to start by briefly mentioning that it was originally inhabited by native peoples then skips ahead a thousand years or so to incorporation of the City, affectively discounting generations of history.

Similar arguments could be constructed about the Forks and Winnipeg.


The reason I chose Common Ground in a Liquid City is because out of all of the urbanist books I’ve read this is the first to really give me hope that ordinary citizens can have a meaningful impact on the city. That you don’t have to rely on city council, entrepreneurs, or developers to create the kind of city you want to live in.

I’m as guilty as anyone. We all love to complain and whine about all the things that are wrong with this city, but how often do we actually get up and do something about it?


The audio is up for this week's book club episode of Winnipeg Internet Pundits..