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Local Commons Initiatives

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 9: Building the Commons Sector (pages 135-154)

“Where’s the action?” the gamblers ask in Guys and Dolls. When it comes to building local commons institutions, the action is just about everywhere. Here’s a sampler.

I’ve already mentioned the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Pacific Forest Trust. The aim of such trusts is to shield pieces of land from development or degradation. They do this by owning land outright, or by owning easements that restrict how land may be used. Land trusts aren’t just for the countryside. In Boston, people in the Dudley Street neighborhood formed one in 1988 to buy vacant land and determine how it could best serve the community. Today there are six hundred new and rehabbed homes — all with a cap on resale prices — plus gardens, a common area, parks, and playgrounds. These efforts revitalized the neighborhood without displacing local residents, as would have happened through private property and gentrification.


The Oregon Water Trust, founded in 1993, acquires surface water rights to protect salmon and other fish. So far it has worked with over three hundred landowners to put water back into streams, some of which had been sucked completely dry. Sometimes a water rights seller forgoes water by switching crops, or by irrigating only during the spring, when stream flows are ample for farmers and fish alike. At other times, deals have hinged on delivering water from a different source, while leaving it in streams where fish need it. Recently, similar trusts have sprung up in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Nevada.

Groundwater, the source of half of America’s drinking water, is being pumped faster than nature replenishes it. The problem is especially acute in the High Plains, where farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer, and in the Southwest, where many cities face water shortages. In San Antonio, which gets 99 percent of its water from the Edwards Aquifer, the Edwards Aquifer Authority now limits groundwater withdrawals by issuing permits. A similar trust for the Ogallala Aquifer is a solution waiting to happen.

Turn the corner in Manhattan and you may discover a green oasis rising from the rubble of a vacant lot. Amid the bean vines and tomato plants stand sculptures, shrines, and toolsheds, all on land the gardeners claimed after buildings had been demolished. New York City is dotted with 700 community gardens. About 150 of these will eventually give way to housing, but the rest will stay.

And it’s not just New York. The American Community Gardening Association counts seventy major cities with community gardens. In Seattle, more than nineteen hundred families raise food in these neighborhood spaces. In Philadelphia, gardeners save an estimated $700 each year on food bills. In Boston, the Food Project produces over 120,000 pounds of vegetables on twenty-one acres; most of it goes to people in need. Just as importantly, these gardens turn strangers into neighbors.


Until the Civil War, most American cities had public food markets. In the 1940s, there was a brief resurgence, as farmers sought better prices and shoppers sought fresher food. Then came interstate highways,
and the market for seasonal local produce collapsed.

Now these commercial commons are being reestablished. From Union Square in New York City to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, city-dwellers are rediscovering the pleasures of meeting each other and the people who produce their food. There are now nearly four thousand farmers’ markets in the fifty states, double the number that existed ten years ago.


From New York City’s Bryant Park to Portland, Oregon’s, Pioneer Square to Boston’s Copley Square, urban plazas are coming back to life. Even Detroit, which was built by the automobile, is reviving its downtown by rerouting autos around a new public square called Campus Martius Park. The park bristles with life in both summer and winter, and has attracted some $500 million in new investment to the area. In Portland, informal groups of neighbors have reclaimed street intersections. They paint vivid designs on the pavement to mark the place as their own, and often add community-building amenities such as produce stands and play areas.


Helping your neighbor is an American tradition. But as people relocate more frequently, it’s harder for them to trust that favors they do will be repaid. Time banks are one solution. The idea is simplicity itself. When you help a neighbor for an hour, you earn one “time dollar.” Then, when you need help, you can spend your saved dollars. In Brooklyn, New York, members of an HMO for the elderly use such temporal currency to help each other with home repairs, transportation, and companionship. It’s a model waiting to be replicated.

The Internet is the sidewalk of the twenty-first century, so it’s not surprising that cities are starting to build high-speed wireless networks the way they once built streets. Many operate wireless “hot zones” that offer free access over dozens of blocks. In San Francisco and New Orleans, free access may even be citywide. Other cities, like Philadelphia, are rolling out low-cost service citywide. ... read the whole chapter



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper