Viva la Commons?

One day last fall, I overheard my four-year-old lecturing another child on the idea of the public commons.

Kind of.

This other little boy tried to grab a truck away from Sam in the sandbox in our neighborhood park. “Mine!” he said.

Sam looked a little baffled, glanced briefly at me, and replied, “It’s not yours. And it’s not mine. It’s just…everyone’s.” (The trucks are mostly left there by families that use the park, although a few are purchased by the city for park use.)


I think that the little boy started crying, because he just wanted the truck, but maybe I’ll imagine a different ending to the story today, one that involves communal understandings of property, and shared stewardship, and exaltation of the “we” above the “I”.

One of the sites I’ve been spending some time on lately is On the Commons, described as “a citizens’ network that highlights the importance of the commons in our lives, and promotes innovative commons-based solutions to create a brighter future.”

What’s not to like?

There’s a lot of environmentally-related content, as you might imagine: our communal resources such as water, alternative energies, and green space. But there’s also material related to using wealth in ways that promote the common good, (three cheers for responsible tax policies!), discussions about the Internet as a public good rather than a corporate tool, and the forum organizing project, dedicated to talking together about our common spaces, physical and not, and how to not just preserve but enrich and enlarge them.

I think about the public commons a lot more since I had kids, and not just because we spend a lot of time in that sandbox.

It’s because our common resources, and, more importantly, the mentality to value and share them, are a big part of what we leave to our children, and far more secure than private inheritances we might hope to leave.

And I’m not sure what kind of public commons we’ll have left by the time they’re engaged in debates over how to protect them, or whether the concept will even have real meaning by then. Even today, there are parents who seem confused, on their first visit to the park, that someone has left toys there for the community to use. And others who avoid the public park altogether, because they don’t like the unpredictability that comes with sharing an unmediated public space.

But I believe very strongly in things public: public schools and public places and public utilities.

I believe in them not just for what they provide, but for how they change how we think, about who belongs within the “we”, and where the limits of our personal ownership are drawn.

And I want my kids to have those experiences, including the inevitable tussles when private desires clash with public good. I want them to be people comfortable with commons living, people who prefer public spaces.

And, so, I’ll be On the Commons quite a bit, alongside my fellow citizens, around the world, who believe in public, too.

Join us.

3 responses to “Viva la Commons?

  1. Pingback: Weekend Links 7 | Fighting Monsters

  2. Bob Williams-Findlay

    Melinda, I read your piece ‘Viva la Commons?’ with one eye upon what is happening in the UK t0day. There are cultural and language difference between the US and the UK, however I believe I can share your commitment to both “public space” and “citizenship” as I understand them. Nevertheless when I hear our Prime Minister talk about a “Big Society”, then read his ‘big idea’ is based upon those of Saul Alinsky, my skin grows cold. I forsee our ‘public services’ being replaced by a ‘social enterprise culture’ and where “citizenship” is managed by internal markets run by professionally developed community leaders. I’ve a sense that what you’re describing is far more organic and democratic than my nightmare vision of what’s in store for us.

    • Thanks for your comments–I’m sure that much is lost in the translation, so to speak. Here, we have seen a shrinking of our understanding of citizenship, so that one’s “civic engagement” is really about, essentially, consuming one candidate over another, rather than battling for authentically shared common space and mutual governance. But I think it’s a really important point that you make, about how important it is to claim the language we use to talk about the dreams we hold for our future, so that those terms aren’t co-opted and distorted to such an extent that we can hardly talk about, let alone craft, a commons. Thank you for reading.

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