On the commons: reflections on sustainable community

When I was nine years old, my family travelled to England to visit the extended tribe. Mum and Dad had emigrated from England to New Zealand in the early nineteen sixties. It was the first time that my siblings and I – Kiwis born and bred – encountered the full contingent of British grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins to whom we were biologically related. It was the summer of seventy six and England put on her best weather – a heatwave in fact. We travelled through Dorset, Surrey, Devon, and Cornwall. I will never forget it.

England, for me, was a sweltering dream. It was like a fantasy novel full of rolling landscapes, verdant forests with horses and deer, thatched roof cottages, stone circles, Roman roads and castles. And the commons. I remember fishing for Sticklebacks with my cousin Helen on Broadstreet common. I had never been on a commons before. All I knew about the commons came from episodes of The Wombles. Helen, a hardcore tomboy, brought a bag of maggots for us to use as bait. I let her bait the hooks. The weather was perfect. We sat tending our lines as I marvelled at the untamed landscape about us and wondered how a commons continues to be.

This was a beautiful piece of land. What kept people from building on it and farming?

I should add some more context. The house I grew up in back in New Zealand was nestled in a tiny suburb, but it hadn’t always been that way. When we’d first moved in, there was scarcely a house on the horizon. Herds of cows would graze under the kitchen windows. When Mum wanted mushrooms for Sunday breakfast, Dad and I would head out into the fields and pluck them from the earth. This was the early seventies. By seventy six, the area was changing. Neighbourhoods of single-family homes had burst from the landscape. The green fields were strafed by avenues and cul-de-sacs choked with brick and plasterboard houses.

This is what I thought people did to open spaces: they filled them up, paved them over, turned them into urban spaces. This was my experience to date. Summer on the Broadstreet common was an eye-opener for me. I realized that open spaces could stay open so long as there was an agreement between people to share and preserve the commons. An agreement to share in common.

Roman law had a concept of the commons. The Romans divided goods into three categories: res privatae, res publicae, and res communes. Res privatae was the realm of private possessions, things that were owned by individuals, like villas, chariots, and slaves. Res publicae was the realm of public possessions, things that one might get free use of but which were owned by municipalities, councils, or governments. Examples include city streets and squares, public schools, and libraries. Res communes were things common to all. This realm of common goods was distinct from public and private spheres. Today, we’d see it as including things like water, air, and biological and genetic resources – things that we desperately need to preserve. Unfortunately, most of these things are being exploited and depleted to the point of exhaustion. Where governments seek to preserve the commons, they privatize it, selling it to the highest bidder. Even the Earth’s atmosphere, that vital blend of elements necessary to sustain life on this planet, is currently being parcelled up into bits and traded on international carbon markets. Res privatae, animated by the fevered dream of possessive individualism, is laying claim to every inch of the Earth.

I wonder: will the planet go the way of the greenbelt suburb in which I grew up? Where will the cows go to graze? And where will we find wild mushrooms?

These may read like idle thoughts. Perhaps they are. In an age where ‘realistic’ thinking has set us on a path to destruction, it seems necessary to dream the future into being. In my dreams, I am fishing for Sticklebacks with Helen on the Broadstreet common. And Helen and I are not alone. The commons idea is having a resurgence today. In environmental activism, countercultural political movements, and new forms of economic activity, commoning is a hot topic. The Occupy movement reclaims public space and ‘commons’ it, making it common. The collaborative consumption movement ‘commons’ cars, clothes, couches and rental spaces, making them available to communities of people who share them. When we share and co-create online, we ‘common’ our intellectual property, placing it in a shared space (be it a open domain or a ‘walled garden’) where our friends can access and enjoy it. The commons idea is vital to the open web.

The return of the commons is cause for hope. If we could revive the domain of res communes and make it central to our culture, as it was in ancient times, we’d stand a chance of preserving what free and open spaces remain. We’d also transform our societies for the better. To create a commons, you need ‘commoners’ – people who are dedicated to building and preserving the commons. Commoners are citizens, but they are more than just private individuals. Commoners are inspired by the sense of the abundance of wealth they hold in common, and the mutual benefit they derive from working together to preserve it. They have the satisfaction of knowing they are participating in a process of social transformation that could literally save the planet.

Commoners are heroes of the future. They preserve the dream of a better future – in common.


  1. I can’t agree more! I recently read Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s “Declaration” and it delves more into your points about the commons and commoners who promote a resurgence of the commons in times ahead. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it! 99 cents for the e-book!

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