Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Sampling of Commons Projects All Over

From Bangkok to Grand Rapids to London
The projects profiled below represent a wide array of individuals and organizations working to build community and create a better future for all. With a focus on co-creation and developing a sense of belonging within communities at the local level, these initiatives showcase the commitment and creativity required for establishing a commons-based society. Read on to learn about The Rapidian, a community-driven, hy- perlocal news source located in Grand Rapids, Michigan;, a global, grassroots movement dedicated to solving the climate crisis; and more.

The Oregon Commons, a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization, inspires appreciation, stewardship and advocacy for the Oregon commons—“the gifts of nature and civilization shared across generations.”

City Repair Project, also based in Oregon, employs artistic and ecologically oriented place making strategies. City Repair inspires people to understand themselves as part of a larger community, participate in decision-making that shapes their future, and realize their creative potential.

Down the cost in Point Reyes Station, California, West Marin Commons aims to enhance, protect, and illuminate our shared environment. The organization creates space for spontaneous sociability and community activities, including sharing rides, garden produce, tools, and “household stuff.”

The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, based in Gloucester, Mas- sachusetts, works to restore enduring marine systems. If we truly care about the health of our oceans, does it matter how, where, and when we fish? NAMA strongly believes it does.

Across the Atlantic, The London Orchard Project plants community orchards in London’s unused spaces. The initiative has many local benefits, including the promotion of fruit production within communities, the greening of London’s urban environment, the creation of wildlife habitats, increased biodiversity within city limits, and improved food security. It also helps Londoners rediscover the simple pleasure of eating organic fruit grown close to home.

[editor: Hard to believe Commons Magazine consistently omits mention of the cultural miracle that is the Transition Movement - a real leader worldwide and the group that initiated nut and fruit tree planting.], founded by author Bill McKibben, is a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. is well known for its online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions—all of which are led from the bottom up by thousands of volunteer organizers in over 188 countries.

On the hyperlocal level, The Rapidian is a news source powered and published by citizen journalists in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It provides tools, training, platforms, and support to empower neighborhood residents to report community news from the inside out. The Rapidian promotes inclusiveness, civility, and ethical reporting as the foundation for increasing civic engagement.

The School of Commoning utilizes the global communication and information sharing capacities of the Internet. As an online resource for people who want to learn about the commons, the School offers a bank of resources and educational programs to commoners around the world.

Located in Sacramento, California, the Sol Collective provides arts, cultural, and education programming that supports social justice and empowers youth. The Collective maintains a brick and mortar center, which often hosts art exhibitions, multimedia workshops, apprentice/ mentorship programs, and community forums.

Occupy Sandy illustrates the power of commons solutions—without the burden of bureaucratic red tape—in times of crisis. An impressive, nimble, and well-coordinated relief effort to distribute resources and volunteers to help neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Sandy is a grassroots emergency management response formed by a co- alition of individuals from Occupy Wall Street,,, and

In Detroit, Michigan, there is another locus of commoning in re- sponse to crisis. The People’s Water Board maintains that “water is life” and a human right. The Board advocates that all people should have ac- cess to clean and affordable water.

The Greening of Detroit’s Openspace program is another Detroit-based effort that aims to transform some of the 100,000 vacant lots in the city into places that contribute to the fabric of the community. The program helps residents turn lots into community gardens, fruit orchards, market gardens, pocket parks, and native plant gardens.

The local arts community is yet another key group making a commons-based contribution in Detroit. The projects are numerous and inspiring and include Detroit Artists Market, 555 Creative Community, and Community Arts Partnerships Detroit, to name but a few.

Restore/Restory, is an interactive story map that gives a people’s history of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland, California. The project tells the diverse stories of California’s peoples, traditions, and re- lationship to the land.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, the Vital Aging Network promotes self-determination, civic engagement, and personal growth for people as they age through education, leadership development, and opportunities for connection.

CoCo Coworking, also based in the Twin Cities, is a place where independent workers, small businesses and corporate workgroups can gather to share ideas, team up on projects and get work done.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance provides innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. Don’t miss their recent TEDx Talk: Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy.

And in an effort to engage thinkers around the world in conversation about economics and the commons, the Commons Strategies group, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation are hosting three Commons Deep Dive workshops—two of which already took place during October and November—in Mexico City, a city near Paris, and Bangkok. These Deep Dives will serve as preparatory events for a major international conference called “The Economics of the Commons” to be held in Berlin next May.


Editor: This is the final chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine presented each Sunday at EYNU.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

One Town’s Unexpected Economic Renaissance


Hardwick, Vermont embraced agricultural projects based on sharing

Here is a small town that thrives on a kind of agriculture where scale matters, stakeholders collaborate, and, in most cases, ownership has more to do with stewardship than it does with possession. Community members know each other by name and value civic engagement. Young people who moved away for bigger and “better” opportunities now flock home, seeking jobs and dedicating themselves to community improvement. This town, Hardwick, Vermont, embodies the spirit of the commons in so many ways—but it wouldn’t be that way without the vision and drive of Tom Stearns, an ardent commons advocate and the founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds.

Over his years working in the seed business, Stearns has come to understand that, even more so than the land he works, the seeds themselves are a special kind of commons. The vegetable seeds we have now, he says, are vastly different than the seeds that existed one hundred years ago, and today’s seeds will assume new qualities in the future. That’s partly why privatization and commodification have become commonplace in the seed industry. Corporate giants have denied public access to information about our seed resource because “when you control seeds, you control a lot,” says Stearns.

But the High Mowing team engages and interacts with everyone who uses seeds, including farmers and gardeners, plant breeders at universities, other seed companies, and soil scientists. They do this in an effort to bring the seed community’s collective wisdom to bear on how to develop new seed varieties, how to make seeds available to consumers, and how to promote them as a critical element in building healthy food systems. By encouraging this knowledge sharing, High Mowing empowers the whole community to engage in a ten-thousand year old practice of food provision that is vital for the future. They are framing seed saving as a commons‐based solution.

Stearns is also a co-founder of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, a Hardwick‐based nonprofit that coordinates regional food system activity. Among many other contributions to the community, the non-profit just purchased the old town common. Until recently, no one had hope that Hardwick, an aging granite-mining center, would ever recover from the mining industry collapse. The town common had been neglected since the thirties, but members of the Center for an Agricultural Economy saw its potential and purchased the sixteen acres in the heart of Hardwick. Today, Stearns describes all kinds of activity planned for the property, including an educational farm and community garden.

The combined effect of these many assorted commons solutions is a small town renaissance no one could have expected in Hardwick. Stearns describes countless new economic opportunities growing up around healthy food, ecological awareness, and value‐added agriculture. There are new jobs—good jobs—at High Mowing and elsewhere.

The rural “brain drain” is reversing in this area, as smart young people who moved away are coming home. People are once again running for town select boards and school boards. “People are actually competing [for those positions] because they want to have a voice,” Stearns says.

“It’s really cool.” When asked about the secrets to this success, Stearns speculates that Vermont’s size has something to do with it. Towns operate on a “human-scale,” and political figures are readily accessible (you might event spot the governor walking down the street, he says). As a result, people sense their ability to make an impact—they are not just one among millions. To Stearns’s mind, the hopelessness that comes from feeling inconsequential is one of the main obstacles to creating commons-based societies in other places today.


Editor: Another chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine being presented each Sunday at EYNU.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How Indigenous Forms of Governance Can Improve Our Modern World

Ardoch Algonquin Chief Robert Lovelace helps us re-imagine society’s relationship to nature

Indigenous cultures are complex knowledge systems that utilize energy, food security, transportation and communications in balance with natural systems. Understanding how indigenous economies, as well as social and cultural systems work can help bend the curve against the prospects of social, environmental and economic failure.

Present governance structures conform little to environmental or ecosystem realities. For the most part, political boundaries were created to serve colonial settlement, resource extraction and industrial manufacturing while denaturing ecosystems and limiting environmentally appropriate governance. Faced with overexploitation of resources, ecosystem degradation, contamination of soils and water and climate change, the people of North America need to re-imagine how we connect to the earth. Ecosystem appropriate governance is a step in the right direction. We also need to ensure economic, social and cultural practices work with natural replenishment cycles rather than against them.

Language is the “signature” of culture. How we speak to one another, how we describe and discuss the world in which we live, determines our success in relating to the world. Indigenous knowledge systems are reflections of empirical interaction with the earth, rational discovery, symbolic imagery and social reinforcement, directed toward a deep understanding of the local. Indigenous languages are verb-based rather than using nouns as the foundation for communication as we do in English. If we simply want to acquire “things,” then the structure of our present language works fine. If we want to relate with the world, make appropriate ecological choices, and rebuild collapsing environments then we need to learn, think and create in action words. We need to live within dynamic eco-natural processes to live well together.


Professor Robert Lovelace, retired Chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, has decoded elements of aboriginal governance that are key to re-indigenizing the commons. Lovelace presented part of his work at the Great Lakes Commons Gathering. Excerpted from “Kosmos magazine.”

Editor: Another chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine being presented each Sunday at EYNU.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Take Back the Streets

How one Dutch neighborhood made streets safer for the whole world

Traffic calming has swept the world over the past 20 years. It’s based on the rather simple idea that cars and trucks don’t have exclusive ownership of our streets. Streets are shared commons that also belong to people on foot and bicycles, in baby strollers and wheelchairs. Reminding motorists of this fact, traffic calming uses design features such as narrowing roads, adding speed bumps or elevating crosswalks to slow traffic and assert pedestrians’ right to cross the street.

This idea has altered the literal landscape of urban life in the Northern Europe, North America and the rest of the world as people move about their communities with more ease and pleasure.

The origins of this ingenious idea trace back to Delft, Netherlands, where residents of one neighborhood were fed up with cars racing along their streets, endangering children, pets and peace of mind. One evening they decided to do something about it by dragging old couches, coffee tables and other objects out into the roadway and positioning them in such a way that cars could pass but would have to slow down. Police soon arrived on the scene and had to admit that this project, although clearly illegal, was a really good idea. Soon, the city itself was installing similar measures called woonerfs (Dutch for “living yards”) on streets plagued by unruly motorists.

Invented by neighbors in Delft, Netherlands, who were tired of cars speeding down their street, traffic calming is now spreading throughout the world.

One can only imagine the response of city officials if these neighbors had meekly come to city hall to propose the idea of partially blocking the streets; they would have been hooted right out of the building. But by taking direct action, they saved their neighborhood and improved everyday life in cities around the world.

Photo by Walk Eagle Rock under a Creative Commons license from

Editor: Another chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine being presented each Sunday at EYNU.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How New York City Kept Its Drinking Water Pure

. . . and saved billions of dollars
Beginning in the 1830s, the City of New York created a water system generally considered to have no equal in the world. Generations of city leaders chose to go far north and west of the City, to find rural environments that would provide pure, pristine water.

But in the 1980s, as the economics of industrialized agriculture began to undermine the economic vitality of the small family farms that dotted the Catskill mountains, things began to change. Catskill farmers, in a desperate attempt to remain economically viable, began industrializing their own farm operations. Chemical fertilizer use increased, erosion accelerated, and pathogen contamination began to grow. Farmers also began selling off the forested portions of their land for environmentally damaging exurban development.

By the end of the 1980s, public health specialists were publicly stating the City would have to substantially increase the treatment of its drinking water source. The costs for the advanced treatment were estimated to be $4 billion to build and $200 million annually to operate. This would double the cost for water in New York City, with major adverse impacts on low-income families.

Thus, when I became Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and Director of the New York City Water and Sewer system in early 1990, determining if there was any alternative to this was at the top of a very crowded agenda.

However, unlike nearly the entire American water industry and its regulators, both of which were dominated by civil and public health engineers who thought almost exclusively in facility construction terms to solve water quality problems, my background was in management reform, public finance and environmental policy, particularly land use.

My new management team and I were quickly convinced that allowing Catskill drinking water purity to deteriorate and then spending massive sums to clean it up was not the ideal option. The team’s philosophy was that a good environment will produce good water. And that made investing in the environment a smart and profitable investment for New York City.

It took eighteen months of mutual work between the City and the Catskill farming community but, in the end, using concepts that have now come to be called ecosystem services, an innovative and far reaching agreement was crafted.

Operationally, the question became what environmental investments should the city make. Some, such as adding to the publicly held land in the watershed— particularly critical lands threatened by development—along with stream corridor restorations and better stewardship of city owned lands were obvious. But that did not answer how to control non-point source pollution on privately held farmlands and other rural landscapes.

The City began to organize an unprecedented program of regulatory enforcement against non-point source pollution runoffs in its watersheds. Some farmers and other rural landowners reacted angrily. But with the city’s support, the Catskill farmers created a program they called “Whole Farm Planning,” which incorporated environmental planning into the business strategy of the farm. A pollution control plan was developed for each farm by the farmer and local farm and agricultural experts.

To ensure pollution control efforts would reach critical mass, the program set a goal of obtaining the participation rate of 85% of Catskill farmers within five years. Thus, while the program was voluntary for any individual farmer, the Catskill farm community as a whole was committed to reach a goal that would ensure the City met its pollution reduction objectives. After five years, 93% of all Catskill farmers were full program participants.

In terms of Clean Water, the results speak for themselves:
There was a 75% to 80% reduction in farm pollution loading;  
The pristine quality of the City’s drinking water was preserved and improved, and the threat that New York would have to spend billions on advanced treatment of drinking water was eliminated; 
The program paid for itself many times over through its many cost savings and played a critical role in helping to stabilize water and sewer tariffs, providing major benefits to low-income households; 
The program was wildly popular with the public and helped build strong urban support for future watershed protection efforts by New York City.
On a broader scale, the Catskill program spurred watershed protection and environmentally-friendly farm programs throughout the United States and catalyzed interest in non-traditional facility construction approaches of the U.S. water industry.

Ecosystem service payment programs like the one used in New York are a way of capturing the environmental profits from the services rural ecosystems provide urban areas and then funneling those profits back into the rural landscapes and the rural communities that provide them, creating a righteous cycle of mutually supportive economic and ecological investments between urban and rural areas, leading to a more sustainable future for both.

The importance of these payments for environmental services (PES) to the future of rural landscapes in particular cannot be overstated. All over the world, rural landscapes are being transformed at a rate that has no historic or economic parallel. PES payments can stabilize rural land use at a more balanced point by making environmental stewardship a new source of economic wealth for rural populations.

The list of water related ecosystem services is almost endless. Water utilities need to go beyond deployment of their traditional engineering skills and pioneer innovative financial arrangements with upstream residents, as New York City did, to take full advantage of these potentials.

photo from Ephemeral New York (ed: a wonderfully fascinating site)

Editor: Another chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine being presented each Sunday at EYNU.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Little Free Library That Could

Bringing the shareable society to a sidewalk near you

You can boost literacy, neighborliness and the commons all at once with a Little Free Library. It’s such an ingeniously simple idea, one wonders why no one thought of it until now. You can take a book or leave a book (or both) at these informal institutions, which “look like birdhouses and act like water coolers” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. They are popping up all over Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, and spreading throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The idea began with social entrepreneur Todd Bol who built the first one in his home of Hudson, Wisconsin and kept right on going. He soon teamed up with his friend Rick Brooks in Madison to form the non-profit group Little Free Libraries to spread the idea. Today, they’ve nearly doubled their goal of establishing 2510 new libraries around the world, outdoing philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

For the latest about the movement as well as all the information you need about building, buying, stocking and maintaining a Little Library in your neighborhood, go to their website Little Free Library.


Photo from Little Free Libraries website

Editor: Another chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine being presented each Sunday at EYNU.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Philanthropy Cannot Solve All Our Problems


An authority on non-profits explains the necessity for government programs

Kim Klein, an eminent authority on fundraising for non-profit groups, first realized the importance of the commons one afternoon at a workshop in Monterrey, California.

“I was fielding questions about how groups can raise money,” she remembers, “and I realized that half the people in the room were school principals and superintendents, who were taking a day off of work because raising money had become so important to their jobs.”

Klein, author of Fundraising for Social Change and co-founder of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, immediately wondered, “What’s going on here?” Education is a commons that should be supported through public taxes, she says, not private donations. If school principals need to write grants to cover teacher’s salaries, something is wrong.

Even more shocking was another growing segment of the fundraising business that Klein noticed at the time. “About twice a month I got a call from parents who want to raise money to buy Kevlar vests for their kids in the Iraq War. Everything has become so privatized—even the safety of our soldiers.”

It’s become her mission to highlight the importance of the commons to people in the non-profit sector, which accounts for 10 percent of the workforce in the U.S. and 12 percent in Canada. She does this through her firm Klein and Roth Consulting and the activist group Building Movement Project.

For Klein, a Methodist who once considered becoming a minister, the commons is a spiritual as well as a political and social issue.

“I introduce the idea of the commons into all my workshops, conversations and speeches,” she adds, “starting with the premise that the commons is becoming enclosed because of privatization, poor tax policy, environmental degradation and the like. I am now leading specific workshops on the role of taxes in our society.”

Klein lives in California, and therefore has seen firsthand the pain and suffering that happens with reflexive opposition to tax increases. “Tax cuts rarely save money for the public,” she notes. “They enclose our commons and they allow only very wealthy people and corporations to become wealthier. The sooner we understand the absurdity of saving money by cutting taxes, the sooner we can actually become the...nation that people imagine: welcoming to all, with high-quality schools and health care, well paying jobs, and vast protected natural beauty.”

She notes that in many countries,“ people pay half their income in sales and income taxes. But they get a lot for it. Unlimited health care and universal higher education, for a start. That’s why they don’t hate taxes.”

Klein’s vision of a commons-based society is built on a foundation of sensible tax policy as well the civic sector, community involvement and people treating one another well. “How do we make sure each person has what they need and how can we take care of the common good? That cannot all be accomplished by philanthropy, it needs public funding.”


Editor: Another chapter in Celebrating the Commons: People Stories and Ideas for the New Year from Commons Magazine being presented each Sunday at EYNU.