Claiming Ownership of Public Space: By Jennie Meinershagen



Photos & article by Jennie Meinershagen


What happens when the neighbors start taking over public space? What happens when they don't? The City of Missoula, Montana, depends on property owners to maintain the non-vehicular public right of way adjacent to their property; it is required by ordinance. The results vary widely, from neglect to delightful surprise. Three years after my design for the City had been implemented I saw what can happen when neighbors claim public space during a recent, casual project review.  


In 2010 the City of Missoula undertook major revisions on North Higgins Avenue. In addition to lowering the crowns on the road, improving pedestrian crossing safety, installing period lighting and adding a modified cycle-track to the three blocks, planting areas were created at the intersections. There is no irrigation to these plantings and the area is heavily used both day and night. Maintenance of the plantings is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner.


At the intersections where the public space has been claimed, the plantings are thriving and being added to in ways that express uniqueness of the neighbor. At the neglected intersections, plantings are trampled, dry and filling with cigarette butts. When the neighbors take ownership of public space the entire community benefits.


The original planting for the city plan included only ornamental grasses that could withstand no watering and little care. This summer the property owners at several corners added annual flowers and oak barrels. During construction, the patrons at one bar requested sunflowers so they could nibble on the seeds; their corner is now full of color.


Our communities are a reflection of the people who live in them. Claiming ownership of public space results in places that reflect the people who spend the most time in those spaces. Community participation in the planning and maintenance of public spaces is key to the success of those places.