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The possibility of the commons

An art installation on Boston Common features 200 rotating blue boxes posing deceptively simple questions about our shared resources: Who owns the air? Who owns time? Your data?

Guides Tra Ha, 24, Tyreke Monterio, 27 and Gabby Preston, 23 serves as guides at the “What Do We Have In Common” art installation on Boston Common by Janet Zweig on Sept. 30.FAITH NINIVAGGI

Boston is a city with old bones but a young attitude — curious, combative, striving, hopeful despite many difficulties. For proof of this, look no further than the notebooks of Tra Ha.

A student at Quincy College, Tra is one of 12 ebullient guides working with “What Do We Have in Common?,” the interactive public art installation that marks the 50th anniversary of the nonprofit Friends of the Public Garden. On view near the Parkman Bandstand through Sunday, the installation features, among other interactive elements, 200 rotating blue boxes, lit from within and in several languages, posing deceptively simple questions about our shared resources: Who owns the air? Who owns time? Your data? These pigeons? This park?


Like the other guides, Tra has been keeping scrupulous notes about her encounters with passersby about the artwork, and on a recent mellow October afternoon she opened a notebook for me. One cranky gentleman complained about some of the questions being in Spanish or Creole. A group of Emerson students debated who owns Boston Common, beginning by saying “the government,” but coming to the conclusion that the park belongs to everyone. Tra says that many visitors, especially younger ones, draw environmental lessons from the questions. If we own these things — the air, our time, history, the trees — shouldn’t we be doing a better job of taking care of them?

Blue boxes, internally lit at night, lay on the Boston Common grass as part of the “What Do We Have In Common” art installation by Janet Zweig on Sept. 30.Faith Ninivaggi/Jan Trousilek

Janet Zweig, the acclaimed public artist who created the installation, wanted to explore the layered meanings of the word “common” (or “commons”). Does it refer to this specific Boston park, to the elusive ideal of unity in these fractured times, or to our responsibilities to one another and the resources we share? “People will enter this piece in different ways,” she said in an interview. “Asking public art to solve social problems is a lot, but it can ask questions; it can make people think.” Boston is fortunate that Now + There, the edgy local arts organization that curated the exhibit, so willingly challenges the city’s reputation for stodgy public art.


There’s an unavoidable irony to the installation’s lofty message of public ownership, since the Friends of the Public Garden is precisely the sort of private group that has become necessary because society has steadily disinvested in the public realm. America’s first city park — incorporated in 1634 — is today supported by a crazy quilt of city government funds, private philanthropy, and negotiated side deals, like the $28 million the city extracted from developers in nearby Winthrop Square. The Friends raise funds for lighting and benches, restoring the park’s sculptures, operating the fountains, and programming — tasks that once were the purview of the public sector.

The Common is undergoing its first-ever comprehensive Master Plan, according to the Friends’ president, Liz Vizza, which is examining everything from the health of its 600 trees to proposed new public restrooms to the mix of memorials in the park. But the question of public responsibility remains. The City of Boston devotes less than 1 percent of its budget to all its parks. “This art is a subtle and creative way to get people to see what a precious resource this is,” said Vizza.

In 1968, an ecologist named Garrett Hardin wrote an influential essay titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Drawing from a 19th-century pamphlet that used as an example a common grazing pasture of just the sort the Boston Common once was, Hardin proposed that public resources held in common will inevitably be used up through self-interested profiteering and come to ruin. Such a cramped view of our collective stewardship! Happily, the economist Elinor Ostrom successfully challenged Hardin’s theory, receiving the Nobel Economics Prize in 2009 by showing that common resources can be equitably managed by self-regulated communities that collectively benefit from them.


This is the question underlying all the others in the Common exhibition: Can we prove Hardin wrong, reverse the exploitation that is exhausting our planet, and find a way to value and protect the resources we hold in common?

One of the favorite moments Tra recorded in her notebook came when she met a five-year-old girl who, with her mother, was puzzling over the question “Who Owns the Future?” With impeccable logic, the girl gave her answer. “Nobody owns the future,” she said, “because it isn’t here yet.”

Exactly. So take heart, young miss: There’s still time.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.