Creating dramatically wealthier cities by expanding the Commons.

Episode 21: Expanding the Commons

How to create dramatically wealthier cities by sharing more.

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Remember learning to share?

Remember, when you were a child, and you learned to share?

It probably didn't seem like such a great idea at first, because it meant that sometimes you couldn't have the thing you wanted. Worse, you had to watch someone else use it!

But gradually, we learned that sharing is not only part of life, it makes us richer.

When you visited friends, you got to play with their toys for free. When you went to a playground, you could use the swings, slides and jungle gyms that were way too big and expensive to fit at home. And it was fun to meet and play with the other kids. Or maybe you found a natural playground, a forest, a desert, a creek, a seashore, vast and open to all.

Then there's all the stories, songs, jokes and games of childhood. Once you learn one, you could share it freely.

And gradually over the years, you begin to appreciate all of the things that your caregivers shared freely with you so you could grow up and thrive.

Those shared things that make your life richer? They are the commons, and having more of them is the secret to creating wealthy cities.

INTRO [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 21, where I'll discuss how to massively increase the wealth of cities by expanding the commons.

What are the commons?

What are the commons? I went to Wikipedia for help. And the various definitions I found were:

"The common pool of resources or common property shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest." And in some cases, it's a "shared resource that is subject to social dilemmas," and we'll get to those dilemmas in a few minutes.

Now, as I started to pull materials together for this episode, I at first thought that I knew quite a bit about the commons. But it turns out there's been a lot of work in this area in the past few decades. And there's a lot that's relevant to Edenicity. So today, I'm just going to present a few strands of possibility that eventually weave into Edenicity.

Okay, let's start with the obvious Commons. Think of things like libraries, highways, streets, sidewalks (at least if you're not paying tolls to use them), public parks.

By the way, Hawaii and many other coastal areas hold beaches in common. And so you cannot, as a private property owner, deny people access to the beach even if your house is right there on the beach. Other obvious Commons would include public art or folk arts, such as stories, music or dances, public schools, expired patents and copyrights. The whole point of patents and copyrights was to encourage people to create and to share their creations so that eventually they would enter into the commons.

There are some commonly managed resources such as community gardens, and in many countries, there's healthcare.

Now, the less obvious but more important Commons include things like the soil, forests, clean air, clean water, including oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, and streams, groundwater, and watersheds (a watershed is an area of land that collects water that drains to a common body of water such as a river lake or an ocean). Then there's species diversity, and views. Now in Hawaii, they have a billboard law, which prevents people from putting up billboards that hide the beautiful landscape that is the centerpiece of the tourism industry.

And online, you're probably acquainted with many Commons including Wikipedia, open source software, including Linux, which underlies Apple operating system and Chrome OS as well as public domain art. In fact, when I finally retired my astronomy software from the Palm Pilot, I released it to the commons and it now lives on its own website, open2sky with the number 2. And as I'll discuss in Episode 23, many neighborhoods throughout the United States these days are experimenting with creating common spaces where none existed before.

So for example, my neighbor Ann Kreilkamp in Green Acres put a bench on the edge of her property and created a miniature Commons that actually proved to be the catalyst for rebranding the neighborhood as an ecovillage.

History of the commons

Now, the term Commons originated in medieval England, where the land was owned by Lords who had large estates that were worked by various classes of tenants who had rights to certain uses of the land. Someone with shared rights to a piece of land was called a commoner.

And one of the most pivotal events in British history was the enclosure of shared grazing lands and forests by private property owners, and the loss of those properties by the commoners. This drove many former commoners into the cities to provide labor for the Industrial Revolution.

Tragedies of the commons

Now, if you've ever taken an Economics 101 course, you're probably familiar with the Tragedy of the Commons. From my favorite Commons, Wikipedia, I found that in 1833, William Forster Lloyd introduced the concept by a hypothetical example of herders over using a shared parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze to the detriment of all users of the common land.

Now, this actually is not theory. This is observed all over the world, not the least of which in the Loess Plateau, which I described in Episode 3, were some of the most fertile agricultural land on the planet was over the course of about a thousand years degraded until it became a barren desert in modern times. So this was caused by unlimited grazing by the animals owned by the people who lived there.

The same goes for fisheries. This is called the tragedy of the fishers. If everybody fishes as much as they'd like, sooner or later a fishery collapses.

Now, the real damage that's done by the tragedy of the commons has many facets. The first is the obvious depletion of the resource. In the case of the Loess Plateau, the soils. In the case of the fisheries, the actual fish stock, the breeding fish stock. But there can also be what economists call externalities. These can be both positive in the form of free riding. So for example, Wikipedia depends on donors for survival. Everybody else is a free rider. But if too many people become free riders, Wikipedia can't pay its bills, and we all lose the resource. And there can be negative externalities such as pollution that eventually leave the commons unusable or degrade the quality of their use.

These aspects of the commons were not popular in academia until 1968, when Garrett Hardin published an essay called the Tragedy of the Commons. And in his view, the social dilemmas caused by lack of ownership of the commons would inevitably lead to their failure. By the time I took my Microeconomics 101 course in 1990, it was just seen as a matter of fact that failure to properly assign and presumably establish a market price for property rights in the commons would lead to failure. So basically, if it's free, and nobody owns it, then no beneficiary (that is to say no commoner) is going to step forward and individually bear the cost of maintenance.

Now, some later commentators have suggested that Harden's essay confuses the commons with open access, and the commons, as we'll see, are not always open to everybody to use as they see fit. As we'll see, in a moment, the commons can be well managed. And later authors such as Derrick Jensen have correctly called the Tragedy of the Commons the tragedy of the FAILURE of the commons.

Comedy of the Commons

Now, if there's a tragedy of the commons, could there be a comedy of the commons? In other words, could there be something about the commons that has a happy ending? Carol Rose, writing in 1986, in the University of Chicago Law Review, argued that yes, indeed there could be comedies of the commons. Ironically enough, I found her paper in the Yale Digital Commons, even though it bore a University of Chicago copyright.

So it's a really interesting paper. I haven't fully digested it but, talking about commerce, including roads and waterways, she comments that "customary doctrine suggests that commerce might be thought of as a comedy of the commons, not only because it may infinitely expand our wealth, but also, at least in part, because it has been thought to enhance the sociability of the members of an otherwise atomized society."

I love her phrase there: "an otherwise atomized society." That's the society that I see when I'm riding through almost any neighborhood in America and I see the standalone houses and screens glowing behind drawn curtains. Atomized society is what you have when you don't have Commons.

Now, in the context of case law, where people wanted to hold traditional dances on land now made private, Rose commented, "at least within the community, the more persons who participate in a dance, the higher its value to each participant, each added dancer brings new opportunities to vary partners and share the excitement."

She goes on to write: "In a sense, this is the reverse of the Tragedy of the Commons. It is a Comedy of the Commons, as is so felicitously expressed in the phrase 'the more, the merrier!" Indeed, the real danger is that individuals may underinvest in such activities, particularly at the outset. No one, after all, wants to be the first on the dance floor. And in general, individuals engaging in such activities cannot capture for themselves the full value that their participation brings to the entire group.

"Here indefinite numbers and expandability take on a special flavor, relating not to negotiation costs, but to what I call interactive activities, where increasing participation enhances the value of the activity rather than diminishing it."

We're going to actually apply this concept in a few minutes.

Successful commons

More recently, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for analyzing situations where the commons operate successfully. For example, Ostrom found the grazing Commons in the Swiss Alps have been run by a collective Farmers their to their mutual benefit since 1517, According to Wikipedia.

I'm just kind of kicking myself because she was in Bloomington, Indiana when I lived there, and I didn't know it.

Now, she did a lot of fieldwork and, based her findings on field work and on historical research, this gave rise to what's called Ostrom's law, which is that "a resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory."

That's just perfect for our time, because political discourse has become so doctrinaire, that it's refreshing to see empirical work assert its rightful place in economics.

Ostrom distilled her work to eight principles for managing the commons, that you can find on Wikipedia. And these include such things as defining clear group boundaries, matching the rules to the local needs and conditions, ensuring that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules, having a system for monitoring members' behavior, having low cost dispute resolution, and, most importantly, building responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system. We'll see the application of that to Edenicity in a moment.

Raiding the Commons

So far, we've seen that the commons can have tragedies, they can have comedies, they can be successfully managed. But they can also be raided. And that really describes where we're at today.

First of all, the commons can be raided by corruption when a community asset is managed for personal gain. Now, the original feudal robber barons were German Lords who charged tolls for using roads or waterways that cross their lands. The Holy Roman Empire ruled this practice illegal in antiquity.

In the 1850s, American political cronies were granted shipping routes at taxpayer expense. Then they turned around and charged the public more, claiming their costs were really high. When Cornelius Vanderbilt started running the same routes at lower cost and high profit without the subsidy, the shippers paid him NOT to ship. These payments led to an editorial cartoon in the 1859 New York Times, branding Vanderbilt a robber baron, and the phrase stuck to a whole generation of industrialists going into the early 20th century.

Then there's the plunder of natural capital, which I described in my book Gaiome from 2007. Let me read a brief paragraph from that:

"The greatest Commons are the world's wild spaces, especially the forests which do not charge for such services as carbon scrubbing, climate moderation, water purification and soil maintenance. However, human agriculture, road building, waste disposal and other activities have removed 90% of the original forests, leaving soils in many areas damaged and vulnerable to erosion. Most of this destruction lurks hidden behind the smiling logos of modern commerce, but it's sometimes pokes through in horrifying ways. When healthy forests are cleared, the land bleeds red, orange and brown. Where there's a buck to be made liquidating the Commons, you'll see a lot of roadkill"

If you're familiar with Disney Studios, you know that they have privatized numerous fairy tales, folk tales, and the cultural Commons of many lands throughout the world. There have been repeated attempts on the part of individuals and corporations to extend copyrights out to infinity so that families can create generational wealth that would earn an income forevermore -- presumably without taxation as a permanent asset, the way, say, real estate is. There have been efforts to extend patents forever.

There have been efforts to buy up all the water rights, and this ties into something that again goes back back to that Microeconomics 101 course where we looked at the relative value of diamonds versus water. And although diamonds are much pricier per gram than water, they're much lower value than water. The paradox is resolved by the fact that water is so much more abundant than diamonds. And so some enterprising entrepreneurs have taken this lesson to heart and are now buying up the world's water rights.

Fortunately, one of the strengths of permaculture and hence Edenicity is the ability to retain and recharge groundwater.

I could go on, I've got a long list here, but the point is that large, powerful entities are raiding the commons throughout the world.

Restoring & expanding the commons

So let's talk about what it would take to restore and expand the commons. Well, going back to the Loess Plateau, which was an example of the classic tragedy of the commons: overgrazing. I detailed in episodes 3 and 10 how this process was reversed in just a short decade by local engagement, local investment and redesign.

Mollison’s 5 Types of Resource Use

Now, the Loess Plateau is actually an example of the first of permaculture founder Bill Mollison's five identified types of resource.

And so the first type would be those resources that increase with modest use. Is that even possible? Sure, for example, grazing and manuring can build soil, unless there's too much of it, in which case you get the catastrophe that happened with Loess Plateau. Other resources that increase in value with modest use include dance halls, which we saw in the Comedy of the Commons, and the Digital Commons such as Wikipedia, which can be expanded practically forever without losing any value. The more articles the merrier.

The second type of resource are those that are unaffected by use this would include songs, stories, even the fruit off of fruit trees. You can harvest all the fruit off of a fruit tree and it's not going to hurt the tree.

Now, that being said, this is not an area where we can get by without any management. Without management, there would be less of these resources and they would be lower quality without incentives to create, plant or maintain and without rules limiting the use. So paradoxically, there is a basis for rules about using resources unaffected by use, such as copyrights, or harvest rights.

For example, when I was in Village Homes, my host welcomed neighbors to pick his clementines, but he caught an off-site family stripping his tree bare for market and chased them off. So even though it doesn't hurt the fruit tree to harvest, the residents of that neighborhood had a shared interest in those trees that was exclusive in nature.

It gets complicated, doesn't it?

All right, the third kind of resource in Mollison's list are those that decrease with use. This would include timber, oil, aquifers... and these must be managed or you lose them. Simple as that.

The fourth type of resource is those that degrade if not used. This would include annual gardens, which get weedy or go to seed when they're not tended every day.

And finally, the fifth resource type are those that pollute or destroy other resources such as uranium or arsenic. And the simple rule for permaculture is to simply not use resources in that fifth category. Replace them with resources from the other categories.

The commons in Edenicity

Now, how do you manage the commons in the city? Well, as I explored in Episode 18, you could use circle governance which tracks the natural structures of the city and the decisions that need to be made at each scale. And in that episode, I gave an example of Buurtzorg, a Dutch company with 9,000 home visit nurses, and no managers. Basically, the nurses worked in teams of 10 to 12 and set their own priorities and it was a huge success. So I believe this model can also be applied to managing the commons of Edenicity.

Now Edenicity could have comedic elements. These are the elements that would increase in value as more people use them, usually because of economies of scale. And this would be things like health care, which in Edenicity would be really easy to make free because it would cost a tiny fraction of what it does in today's society for reasons that I get into in episode 4 (basically people are healthier, so healthcare costs are a lot lower).

Education also falls under this category. In his movie, "Where to Invade Next," Michael Moore describes how schools from preschool through the PhD level in Finland are free. And they are the highest quality in the world. Now Finland didn't actually set out to compete with anybody in terms of quality of education, their driving principle was equity. They wanted to be sure that everyone had equal access to an education at any level. The impetus for this was to participate on the global level in the knowledge economy. So they didn't set out to beat anybody. But they ended up being the number one school system in the world for many, many years. To my mind, that demonstrates the power of inclusion and equity.

So clearly, education and healthcare should be in the commons. What about transportation? Well, Edenicity, as I described in Episode 12, would have a free Loop transit system. This would be an underground rapid transit system that's on demand, point to point, very high speed with minimal waiting and minimal stops in this system. Because it's free, you're not waiting for people to feed the coin slot. You're not hassling with change or showing an ID or a fare card. You just punch in your destination and wait a moment and go. It's like an elevator that takes you anywhere in the city in, like, four minutes. And the advantage to this system is that it raises the value of the whole city. It lets people interact with one another much more conveniently, lets them get around more rapidly. There's far fewer barriers to shopping, there's far fewer barriers to all forms of commerce and interaction. So this is a classic comedy of the commons. And it really should be a free good that's well managed in the public domain.

And if free transit seems strange, bear in mind that the very much more costly roads and highways are experienced as free by most of their users!

What about those elements that go away with disuse? I'm talking about food production. Now this is a natural commons on the scale of the block, the village, the town and the city, and local markets would be the natural mechanism to redistribute surpluses and shortfalls.

Now would be a good time to get out the reference design from the link provided in the program notes.

In Zone 1 gardens and cafes, you would have a commons managed by all of the buildings in a row of houses. In Zone 2 gardens, the commons would be maintained by all of the rows of houses on a block. Zone 3 broadacre crops and grazing and ponds would be managed by the 24 blocks in a village and possibly in conjunction with the neighboring villages. Zone 4, forests, streams and creeks, would be managed by the nine villages in a town and would have to involve an interface with the neighboring towns as well, as the forest belts separate the towns.

And finally the Zone 5: restoration landscapes that surround the cities would be a commons that would have input from all 100 towns. And the challenge here would be to invest in restoring surrounding watersheds. This would be land acquisition and management. And at the same time manage the access and interaction with these environments very carefully, because it's very possible for people to overuse delicate environments. And this would be an example of Mollison's 3rd resource type: those that degrade with use.

In his book Ecocities, Richard Register points out that even the most extravagant amenities for pedestrians, including kilometers-long, sheltered walks, with intricate stone carvings and dancing water features, are far less expensive per person than the ugliest highways. Add to that the free loop transit with commute times of four minutes, the free education and healthcare, and daily access to gardens, forests and your favorite cafe crowd, and Edenicity starts to resemble that childhood playground, only a million times better!

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 21, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. And if you haven't already done so, please visit the news link at to download a copy of the reference design, and be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss raising children in Edenicity.

I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 21: Expanding the Commons

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