Milenko Matanovic, community-based planner, answers questions
What work do you do?
I run a nonprofit organization called Pomegranate Center. We specialize in involving people in creating gathering places, thereby integrating art into the fabric of the community. We help develop plans for neighborhoods that are safe, humane, environmentally excellent, and filled with character. I founded Pomegranate Center in 1986 to connect community participation with art, education, and the environment because I felt that separating them into exclusive compartments was no longer productive.
What does your organization do?
Pomegranate Center has two major programs:
Gathering Places aims to reinvent the commons. Our model is to involve community members from initial design to construction to eventual programming and stewardship. We use straw bale, round-wood (wood too small to cut into dimensional lumber), salvaged materials, nontoxic stains and paints, rocks and salvaged trees from the site, etc. Just like Habitat for Humanity involves people in construction of homes, we involve them in construction of the spaces between our homes — gathering places. Projects usually log between 1,000 and 2,000 volunteer hours. This creates pride and ownership. We promote the generous use of hands, or things handmade. Whenever possible, we invite young people to work with us and, in the process, introduce them to topics as varied as participatory democracy and consensus processes, art, crafts, dignity of hands, etc.
Community-Based Planning involves consultancies and facilitations that help communities determine commonly agreed-upon goals. Usually our work is about parks, town centers, trails, pedestrian and bicycle plans, civic buildings, and such. We’ve earned a reputation for turning contentious situations around and facilitating processes that result in a commonly held plan.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Mission accomplished will be cities compressed into a series of villages and towns, each with a distinct identity. These cities will combine the best of traditional urban design (old medieval European towns and traditional villages) with modern mass transit and communication technologies. They will have a visible and clear center surrounded by city hall, a library, offices, stores and restaurants, high-density housing, and parks and open spaces scattered within walking distance of all community members. Tentacles of wilderness celebrating watersheds, riverbanks, ravines, and hills will reach into the heart of the city and clear boundaries will exist outside it, beyond which farms and wild lands will flourish. The architecture, cuisine, and arts scenes will develop regional styles and celebrate local choices, materials, and sensibilities. In this future, the differences between cities will be apparent and delightful. The joy of walking and convenience of alternative transportation modes will displace daily use of the single-passenger automobile. In the very center will be a gathering place, a place dedicated to — and created by — the community.
I am an artist and have a very healthy respect for the human imagination. I think of imagination as the software with which our logical minds work. If something exists outside our imaginational framework, we simply do not perceive it. I am interested in changing our imagination about how we live in communities.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
There were only a few days in the last 18 years since I founded Pomegranate Center when I dreaded going to work. Mostly, it is challenging, creative, and rewarding. Today, for example, I did the following: finished a grant proposal to increase our organizational capacity so that we can do more projects in more locations; worked with two volunteers on a banner prototype; reviewed elevation drawings for a proposed gathering-place project in Richmond, British Columbia, and gave a talk to the City Council in Bremerton, Wash., on how art can enhance communities. This kind of schedule is not unusual — I use my mind and my hands in a pretty good mix.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was an avant-garde artist in my native Slovenia (formerly a republic of Yugoslavia), where I worked with Group OHO creating conceptual artwork in town squares, riverbeds, forests, and fields. I’ve always been interested in pushing art into life (rather than into galleries and museums). I dropped out of the modern art network because it looked, at the time, like a dead end as far as impacting daily life.
In 1985, I wrote a small booklet called “Meandering Rivers and Square Tomatoes” — a meditation on the ecological nature of creativity as an interactive, responsive, jazz-like process that has the power to connect humans with nature, with each other, and with a preferred future.
Square tomatoes were real. In the early ’60s, the University of California developed a mechanical tomato picker with metallic hands not delicate enough for round and juicy tomatoes. So instead of redesigning the tomato picker, the university was asked to create a hard, square, spongy, and thick-skinned tomato, which had to be gassed with ethylene to ripen and then waxed for the market, and which was not only harmful but tasteless. This is how cleverness works: instead of going back to a large field of information to find a solution (in this case, revisit the very idea of a tomato harvester), it acts from narrowly selected information. Cleverness tends to be a one-way process with a focus on rash output that is often premature, resulting in a bold but potentially destructive act. The guiding principles that made square tomatoes, unfortunately, are the norm in many areas of our lives.
In my booklet, I proposed a different practice of creativity, a river-like process that always yields to the terrain and the context, resulting in connectedness instead of simply cleverness.
So, in 1986 I incorporated Pomegranate Center as a nonprofit organization to apply concepts of “connective creativity” to contemporary communities and try to figure out how to better link artistic, environmental, and social issues.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia. For the past 20 years, I’ve lived in Washington state near Seattle.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
One was when the National Endowment for the Arts announced that Pomegranate Center was given a grant to enhance a particular low-income neighborhood in Kent, south of Seattle. The problem was that by the time they informed us that the proposal was approved (nine months later), we had already moved ahead without their help and were done with that project. We were delighted to have been chosen as recipients, though, and suggested they let us use the grant for another very similar project in another low-income neighborhood in Seattle. This request was denied and the grant was promptly pulled. We were told to create a separate application for the new project, which we did, replicating the proposal with location changes. The proposal was rejected. I still don’t get what the hell happened. It was a Kafkaesque moment.
What’s been the best?
Seeing children and adults point to something they helped create and say with pride: I did this.
Who is your environmental hero?
John Todd, founder of New Alchemy Institute and Ocean Arks International, and inventor of living machines — the first prototypes for biological treatment of sewage. John recruited microorganisms and plants to purify water in a compressed version of a natural process. His innovations led to a whole new technology that is now gaining greater acceptance.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Salad with my wife’s dressing; baked fish with roasted potatoes and asparagus; fresh garden-picked raspberries with yogurt; and a glass of good red wine.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Artsy-fartsy, bicycle-riding troublemaker.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
Promotion of fear and end-of-the-world scenarios. I think that we need hopeful images of the future, images that inspire. We need yes statements about the future. Instead, we are getting the opposite — a lot of statements about what we shouldn’t be doing. I suggest to my environmental friends that they describe their imagination for the future — focus on how great life could be, and make that image so compelling and celebratory that others will feel left out if they don’t join in.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Land-use reform that fosters higher density (balanced with parks and gathering places) while creating greenbelts for farming and wilderness.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Rolling Stones. Now I listen to music of all kinds — jazz, classical, traditional.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where fake news is more honest than the real news. Any Buster Keaton movie.
What are you happy about right now?
That my daughters have grown into full, vibrant, and aware humans who can see the humor and irony of our collective situation and have a twinkle in their eye, and that my wife and I still enjoy each other after 28 years of marriage.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Support projects with multiple victories. There is only so much energy each of us can give, so let’s give it to projects that make environmental sense but also economic sense, that build community, that bring beauty, that offer learning, etc. Or if you can’t find such a project, bike to work.