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.
Rhymes With Pomegranate
When is a community ready to engage in the type of creative work that Pomegranate supports? In your experience, what groundwork needs to be in place before a project can begin? — Kate Hofmann, Reston, Va.
Our model is based on four key ideas:
- Participatory democracy and the ideals of an open society;
- Respect for and celebration of nature;
- Generous use of hands; and
- Design that captures local possibilities and metaphors.
Communities that invite us are sympathetic to these ideas. They also need to have a suitable site, preferably in a central location adjacent to other important destinations. They need to provide local leadership in gathering volunteers. They need to seek in-kind donations and sometimes have to raise funds. But mostly, they need to trust that our process will serve their needs.
How does a gathering-place project begin? Does the community contact you or do you choose a community that you feel is in need of a gathering place? — Name not provided
In the past, since we had to establish an image of what a gathering place could be, we initiated projects and often worked for little or no money. Now we have a track record, and more communities contact us and contract with us.
When you work with local communities to create a project, how do you know when you have hit the appropriate place-based message of the work? Do you strive to elicit a particular emotional response in each place? — Steve Frisch, Truckee, Calif.
We strive for a design that rises out of the site. When the project is done, it should feel as if it has been there for a long time. Using local materials helps. Spending time at the site and working with people who have local knowledge helps. When I design, I first try to identify a feeling, a quality, or a pattern that represents the project — a project’s DNA. This DNA informs all the specific design decisions. A more apt analogy might be that it is a melody around which participants can improvise. I strive to communicate this to all who work with us so that, at the end, all the small details fit together and reinforce each other.
When you receive grants and financing for community “gathering places,” are they operated by the local governments, a citizen steering committee, certain financiers/landowners, etc.? — Jared Webb, Rocky Mount, Va.
Each project is funded differently. Currently, in most cases, we get hired to do a project. Sometimes, though, we find a project so compelling that we help raise funds that come from individuals, corporations, and foundations. We received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to develop designs utilizing roundwood — logs that are too small to cut into dimensional lumber and are cleared from mature forests to prevent fires.
I am curious about the art you did with OHO. Could you describe some of the conceptual artwork you created? — Name not provided
I lit candles in a field, arranged to mirror the stars in the sky. I placed a line of string and wood into a river to help people see the invisible currents. I exploded a smoke bomb in a gallery to recreate the feeling I had watching clouds on my first airplane ride. Moses-like, I parted a wheat field with a string. I organized a large group of friends to freeze on a signal, thus creating puzzlement in the citizens of my native city of Ljubljana. I walked hundreds of times over the same terrain to forge a new path. I exhibited the sunset. You get the idea. I played with pranks and interventions that aimed to confuse or illuminate, depending on the situation.
Your gathering-place projects are beautiful. Having worked with many children and volunteers on artworks in the past, I know it is often challenging to maintain the quality of the artwork while managing so many people with different skill levels. Do you have any advice on ways to keep your standards and the quality high when working with young children and volunteers? — Name not provided
I’m glad you think our projects are beautiful. Our goal is to keep the quality high while being inclusive, and we recognize that there is a tension between these two goals. In each project, we separate what can be done by volunteers from what needs to be done by professionals. For example, we do not involve volunteers in anything that is dangerous. In addition, the design needs to be volunteer-friendly. For example, in a straight wall, each misplaced brick or stone will read as a mistake. A curved wall is much more tolerant of imperfections, and mistakes can actually add to the character. We also have team leaders in place to teach techniques to the volunteers and keep the quality high. We expect a lot from volunteers, and we don’t hesitate to push them hard. In the end, they are grateful for this because they end up with a work that they will be proud of for a long time.
Do you have any formal education regarding community development/planning? Do you have any suggestions for future urban/community planners regarding education/experience? — Erica Mensch, Bloomburg, Penn.
I studied art history at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, though I left the country just before I graduated. I learned almost everything I do just by doing it, what my wife calls “Seat-of-the-Pants University.” I’ve worked with mentors and have learned from numerous individuals. That worked for me. Now there are schools that teach how this kind of work can be done. For example, the University of Washington’s Community, Environment, and Planning program teaches public involvement and design. Ultimately I think that the best way is to work with people you can trust who have experience and knowledge.
I agree with your ideas about the traditional village approach to urban living, but noticed you didn’t talk about workplace environments. How do you see office space and technology parks being incorporated into these communities? — Jared Webb, Rocky Mount, Va.
My basic thought would be to integrate them into the fabric of the community rather than zone them into separate campuses. My only experience with that is at Pickering Place in Issaquah, Wash., convincing the developers to donate a central space back to the community and then creating an amphitheater and plaza for public use.
I have found that public meetings are often very frustrating. Some people are just there to complain, and they don’t seem open to thinking beyond their interests and considering what’s best for the community. What are some of your methods for dealing with these people and facilitating processes that result in a commonly held plan? — Name not provided
When I work with public meetings, I begin by presenting a procedure for civic behavior. I call it “ground rules for peer learning” and ask participants to abide by these rules. Peer learning assumes that together we know more than any one individual. The goal is to uncover the very best solution, not to convince others about the rightness of one’s own pet idea. Some of the rules are simple — respect and listening, for example. Others are a bit more demanding. For example, I ask that people be willing to change their mind in view of new information. I ask them to think on behalf of those not present but who will be affected by the decision. I ask them to be creative, because new conditions require fresh solutions. Often I open the process with a short presentation introducing what other cities and communities have done in similar situations — this is to open up the imagination beyond the familiar.
Does Pomegranate Center offer classes and workshops? — Name not provided
Pomegranate Center sponsors an annual gathering to meet with colleagues and explore the connection between design and community. I am receiving more requests for talks, workshops, and classes. Pomegranate Center’s next goal is to integrate workshops with our projects, balancing theoretical ideas of place-making and community building with hands-on work. We have also received a grant from Safeco Corp. to write a booklet on gathering places, a project I am currently working on. Join our mailing list to receive more information.
I love your statement about the environmental movement’s need to imagine a future that is so compelling and celebratory that others want to join in, and I’m sold on your supremely hopeful vision of what “mission accomplished” will look like. Until we get there, what do you celebrate now, every day, to make that inspiring vision contagious? — Kate Hofmann, Reston, Va.
I enjoy the many contradictions and ironies of our culture. I enjoy and respect my colleagues at Pomegranate Center — a motley crew with a good sense of humor. We laugh a lot. I enjoy the work — squeezing large ideas into limited projects. For more, see the next answer.
How do you stay positive about the future and not focus on the dire consequences of our actions when it seems we are up against so many challenges? — Name not provided
I think that in times like ours, the most important thing is to think imaginatively and creatively. When one is depressed, that kind of thinking goes out the window. Someone said that worrying is praying for what we don’t want. If the problem starts defining our thinking and our actions, then we become a part of that problem. We turn into what we hate. I happen to think that it’s important to practice holding the tension between the ideal and the real, and resist the temptation to think that we have to choose one over the other. This is not easy, but lucky for us, every day offers us opportunities to practice it by doing small things on behalf of the change we want to see in the world. The sum total of those small but powerful acts will slowly tip the balance. If we only react, change is not possible.