New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Rebuilding the Commons

October 29, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Ecology, Economy, Jay Walljasper

Principles and Practices for Reinvigorating Shared Spaces

by Jay Walljasper

Elinor Ostrom shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her lifetime of scholarly work investigating how communities succeed or fail at managing common pool (finite) resources such as grazing land, forests and irrigation waters. Ostrom, a political scientist at Indiana University, received the Nobel Prize for her research proving the importance of the commons around the world. Her work investigating how communities co-operate to share resources drives to the heart of debates today about resource use, the public sphere, and the future of the planet. She is the first woman to be awarded the Nobel in Economics.

Ostrom’s achievement effectively answers popular theories about the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which has been interpreted to mean that private property is the only means of protecting finite resources from ruin or depletion. She has documented in many places around the world how communities devise ways to govern the commons to assure its survival for their needs and future generations.

A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter — a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers eight principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

From the Commons to Our Cities

The city where you really want to live — that ideal place you wish your own town would become — is not some plan shining on an urban designer’s computer screen.

It actually exists, and I am almost certain you’ve been there. At least once. Not in your dreams, but on holiday. Think about it — vacation is a week or two every year when we live the way we really want. Freed from the everyday worries about work, budgets, and mowing the lawn, we do just as we please.

Some folks go to the mountains, some to the beach, but a lot of us head straight for a city, where we walk around all day with pleasurable stops at cafes, museums, parks, shops, nightclubs, markets, squares, gardens, waterfronts, theaters, trails, historical sites, public art, street performers and more. We are enraptured watching people, looking at buildings, taking in the excitement going on all around us. We walk more, eat more, talk more, and laugh more than we ever would at home.

So why is this so much fun? Sure, it’s great to be away from alarm clocks, bosses and household chores. But just as important, we are spending our time hanging out in public spaces — commons — which are wonderful urban spots shared by everyone. We are experiencing what Danish urbanologist Jan Gehl calls “Cities for People.”

That’s the title of his latest book, a fascinating guide on how to create cities that local residents fall in love with, rather than simply put up with. Gehl is nothing short of inspiring in showing us how public spaces explain the difference between a city that makes us feel alive and one that deadens our senses. Cities for People is sprinkled with revealing photos from around the world that illustrate lessons Gehl has learned in 50 years of careful observation about what heightens our happiness and comfort in an urban landscape, and what deflates it.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a day with Gehl and his colleagues in Copenhagen where they talked at length about the importance of public spaces in making the places where we live more prosperous, interesting and satisfying. Here is a summary of what I learned, which I included in my new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (it first appeared in in Ode magazine):

“If you asked people twenty years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop,” observes Jan Gehl, sitting in the former navy barracks near the heart of the city that houses his urban quality consulting firm Gehl Architects. “But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”

That small change of phrase represents the best hope for the future of our communities. Historically, Gehl explains, public spaces were central to everyone’s lives. It’s how people traveled about town, where they shopped and socialized. Living in cramped homes, often with no yards, and certainly no cars or refrigerators, they had little choice but to use parks, downtowns, libraries and other public spaces.

But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars took over the streets — which for millennia had been a commons belonging to all — first in industrialized nations and now in the developing world. Towns and cities spread out, with many merchants moving to outlying strip and shopping malls. People moved into more spacious houses with bigger yards, and then bought televisions, computers and DVD players. Many came to feel they no longer needed the public sphere. And yet there is still a widespread yearning to break out of a privatized existence where we don’t mingle with others.

But people won’t return to public spaces that are ugly, boring, unsafe or rundown. The key to restoring life to our public spaces — and our communities as a whole — is to understand that people today have far more options for socializing and shopping than in the past. A trip downtown or to the farmer’s market or the local library is now recreational as much as it is practical — the chance to have fun and enjoy the surroundings.

“People are not out in public spaces because they have to but because they love to,” Gehl explains. “If the place is not appealing, they can go elsewhere.”

Gehl ticks off a list of places besides Copenhagen that have revitalized themselves through a dedicated program of creating great public places: Barcelona, Spain; Lyon, France; Bogota, Colombia; Vancouver, Canada; Portland, Oregon; Cordoba, Argentina; Melbourne, Australia; Curitiba, Brazil; and New York City.

“There is not a single example of a city that rebuilt its public places with quality that has not seen a renaissance,” Gehl explains.

Jay Walljasper is co-editor of, and is the author of the new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010). He is a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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