People working to reclaim cities as habitats, especially habitats that can sustain them with healthy food, water and transportation options, are in a sense reclaiming the commons. Certainly the commons offers a useful heritage to draw on, starting with the shift of perspective involved: seeing ourselves as inhabitants of local habitats, which cities are. The commons heritage also affirms seeing ourselves as implicated in shaping relations with and within this shared habitat, not waiting for politicians, bureaucrats or investors to respond to local needs and issues.
I first wrote about this when I discovered my own ancestral heritage on the commons. I’d gone looking when I was at a dead-end in my writing. I was always the writer-expert on the outside, analysing the problems and suggesting solutions. I couldn’t sense my way in – inside to where I could really connect with the issues, engage and make a difference. The journey took me to the upper reaches of the Tay River Valley in the Scottish Highlands. There, I learned, my people had lived in direct relations with the land since before recorded time, negotiating those relations for mutual sustainability, drawing on their shared experience as knowledge in doing so. That’s what a commons originally meant: people and the land they inhabited, ‘together as one.’ It’s also the roots of ‘common knowledge’ and the common good. Everyone was a participant in the commons, and implicated in its shared fate.
Twice in recent speeches (one at the College of Sustainability in Halifax, the other at the West End Well food Co-op in Ottawa) I have argued that the roots of modern-day cooperatives lie in the commons: in their practices of self-organization, self-governance and doing everything in shares. Back in the day (of my ancestors), this doing through shares didn’t involve money. It involved contributing your share of labour into work bees, to repair stone fences, called dykes, or digging drainage ditches for the shared infield. It involved sharing out that infield, with each family getting a strip, and sharing out access to the common pasture, through stints or quotas on the number of sheep, cows and goats any one family could send there, to guard against over-grazing. (And there were commons-appointed field officers, including ‘poindlers’ ready to impound any animals exceeding the quota, thus jeopardizing the common good vested in maintaining the common pasture as healthy shared habitat).
The key difference today is that modern cooperatives are corporations; their terrain of shared space and self-governance stops at the door. With a commons, dating from before the nature-culture divide, the sidewalk, the roads, the local parks and streams, even the ones hidden beneath the pavement, are included in the frame. The social and natural habitats intertwine.
I sense a reclaiming of that vision at work in many grassroots initiatives to reclaim the city as a public living space, not just retail, real estate and parking space. In Ottawa, some of this has been channeled through the conventional institution of the community association. In the neighbourhood where the West End Well Co-op operates, the local Hintonburg Community Association had spent the previous decade and more reclaiming the neighbourhood as safe, convivial living space for a diverse population of often low-income people. Not only had they turned municipal planning bureaucratese into street language so that local residents could find their voice in city planning. They had negotiated with the city to shift the management of two local parks from the city to local self-governance. A related Economic Development Committee has helped local owner-operated small businesses turn local streetscapes into welcoming, even festive spots for people to mingle and meet.
There are similar developments at work in practically every city, including under the umbrella strategy, “We Are Cities.” In Toronto, initiatives range from the episodic, like the Jane’s Walks, to longer-term ventures such as the Community Food Centre in the Symington Public Housing project, the Parkdale Community Economic Planning & Development Project and related community land trust, plus a range of gardening and local-habitat claiming initiatives by schools.
One of the lessons from my work researching and writing Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is the importance of capacity building and, with that, accumulating knowledge and confidence in doing it ourselves, informing ourselves and governing ourselves. This is the foundation for reclaiming the commons, one neighbourhood, one city at a time. This reclaiming of agency as inhabitants of habitat, neighbours in community, tenants in a tenants’ association and so on.
In a later blog post, I will write about the role that time and space-sharing ventures such as the Centre for Social Innovation and the Futures Cities collaboration between the universities of Ryerson & Toronto in Toronto and, in Ottawa, 25One Community and the Citizens’ Academy can play in fostering this sharing of local experience as knowledge and affirming local residents as knowledgeable participants in an enlarging sphere of local self-governance.