All human societies have relied on commons of one sort or another — be it pastures, wildlife or the atmosphere itself — but much debate and thought about ‘the commons’ can be traced back to England, where tradition granted people shared access to certain areas for grazing. In fits and starts, most of this land was eventually ‘enclosed’ as landlords attempted to extract greater returns from their property. Ever since, there has been great debate about whether the enclosure of the commons is good or bad for society as a whole. Some economists have raised the spectre of the tragedy of the commons: the idea that we will necessarily over-exploit any resource that is held in common because we do not treat it as our own. This is a real risk and one that is worth defending against through planning, discussion and design — but it seems to me excessive to suggest that all commons are inevitably doomed. This article by David Bollier provides an excellent overview of the idea of the commons, covering both theory and specific examples from seed banks to wikipedia. In regards to the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ Bollier contends that humans are social, sharing creatures as much as, or perhaps more than, we are maximizing individuals. To support this claim, he reviews evidence showing that “social trust and cooperation may be an evolutionary reality hard-wired into the human species.” Bollier and others have noted that the commons is making a resurgence of late. We often hear about open-source software and creative commons licensing rights. I found the image above using this creative commons image search engine. The photograph is being used under a CC license, as the caption suggests. Although I have used creative commons licensed images before and done my best to give proper attribution, in honour of this post, I decided to put my effort where my mouth is by looking up the Creative Commons attribution best practices and following them.
On the Commons Magazine has recently issued a free e-book on the Sharing Economy. One chapter documents a research project in Vancouver which set out to discover how much sharing people did. On one level, such a study seems ridiculously simple — of course people share things, it happens all the time — but most of our current economic metrics register only monetary transactions, even though things like borrowing your neighbour’s bicycle impact your standard of living and should show up in any model of the economy which purports to measure our use of resources. A lot of very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about how to increase the efficiency of the monetary economy. We are likely to face diminishing returns on our efforts in that sphere, but there is low-hanging fruit left to be picked in the world of sharing, which has rarely been studied. Right here in Toronto, Not Far From the Tree harvests fruit from city trees which would normally just fall to the ground and rot. Property owners register their trees, NFFTT coordinates volunteer pickers and distributes the fruit 1/3 to tree owners, 1/3 to pickers and 1/3 to food banks. Treated as private property, these trees were delivering very little value, but when they are treated as a commons, people are motivated to pitch in and food that would have been wasted is put to use. This sort of harvest may not be economically efficient in traditional terms, but there are major social benefits to the volunteers and property owners which cannot easily be counted in dollars and cents, and the environmental costs of the project — which are often ignored in economic calculations — are negligible.
Indoor public spaces are also a kind of commons, particularly when they are shared and co-managed. People collaborate to develop schedules that work for everybody and pitch in — cleaning, fundraising, promoting — when the space itself is in need of help. Of course, a building in a large urban centre can’t be left open to everyone at all times in the same way that a pasture can, but one can develop practices that work for your community and visitors. Mess Hall, for example, had a changing roster of keyholders, who could open and close the space — and the ways in which keyholders are chosen can change depending on a space’s needs and goals. (I hope to present a more detailed profile of the Mess Hall project later this year.) Indoor public spaces barely exist in urban centres where rents are high, because it is difficult for them to turn a monetary profit, but if we were better able to measure the diverse benefits such spaces have for their users, we might see that they are actually a valuable and efficient use of space. As a site where local people mingle, they can also become a hub for other sorts of commons. An apartment building I lived in as a child had a spot in the lobby where people deposited clothes, books and kitchen gadgets which they no longer wanted — my family called it the free store. In addition to this sort of ‘freecycling,’ an indoor public space could house other types of commons as well, depending on the needs of the community — tool libraries, toy libraries, computer labs and knowledge exchange programs are all possibilities.
Of course, a commons doesn’t require an entire building to be a success. The On the Commons E-Book also profiles a Mississauga resident named Dave Marcucci who rearranged his front lawn to make space for a public bench facing the street after attending a Project for Public Spaces workshop on place-making. The bench became a real asset for his block, fostered conversations between neighbours and reaped rewards far beyond what would expect from a few extra square feet of lawn.
Resources mentioned in this article:
The Commons as a Template for Transformation by David Bollier