Urban Commons

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Philip Cryan:

"Many commons-based solutions have been advanced in efforts to revitalize and empower urban communities, even if citizens and grassroots organzations don’t necessarily use the language of the commons. A commons-based society is one that values and protects commons assets, managing them for the benefit of the common good. Market-based solutions can be valuable tools as long as they do not undermine the strengths of the commons itself.The transition to a commons-based society would bring more fairness, democracy and environmental protection.

You can already see examples of growing commons consciousness on city streets today as community organizations around the country—mostly in low-income urban communities with many people of color— have begun to push back against the economic and political forces shaping our cities. These groups may not describe their goal as a a commons-based society, but the work they do in advocating bold new policies and organizing citizens to defend the public interest is the first step toward shifting people’s worldview. These groups challenge three underlying assumptions in economic and political policy that are at the root of our market-based society: 1) that everyone exists primarily as an individual, not as a member of a community; 2) that everyting people value can be delivered through the market system; and 3) that democracy means nothing more than casting an occasional vote.

A number of these new urban organizations have joined together to assert “the right for all people to produce the living conditions that meet their needs.” Calling their alliance the Right to the City, these newly empowered citizens are stepping forward to take a leading role in the decision-making that affects their futures. And other community organizations not involved in this alliance have been forging connections across the usual divides—race, class, geography, issues and types of organizations—to pose a potent challenge to business-as-usual in the ways their cities are run. Rev. Joe Jackson, the director of a faith-based organization in Milwaukee, MICAH, coined a memorable phrase that has become a unifying message for this new urban campaign: “The city belongs to all of us!” (http://www.onthecommons.org/content.php?id=2399)


From Jonathan Rowe:

"City and civic leaders have begun to grasp that the best way to bring back life to downtown is to create spaces where life wants to be. Portland’s Pioneer Square has become a reference point for the movement, along with older spaces such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Common and Copley Square. A more recent shining example comes from an unlikely city, Detroit. Back in the 1970s, in the wake of devastating riots, Detroit tried to revive its downtown through a corporate megalith called Renaissance Center. The Ren Cen became a walled fortress and metaphorically enough, home to General Motors. Then, in the late 1990s, someone in Detroit proposed the opposite approach: a large inviting public space. The result was Campus Martius, in the middle of the old downtown. The Motor City even displaced cars to make room for people. Life is returning to that part of the city. People actually are coming in from the suburbs to experience what the city offers that suburbs can’t. Investment is coming too – over half a billion dollars worth and growing.

Something similar is happening at the neighborhood level. Instead of retreating to their own patches of urban turf, neighbors are tearing down their back fences to create larger shared spaces. This happened at Montgomery Park, an inner city oasis in Boston’s South End. The Baltimore city council recently passed an ordinance to make it easier for neighbors to close off back alleys to make secure commons. The mayor has embraced the idea; and over the past year more than fifty neighborhood groups have begun the process. (There are some 466 miles of alleys in the city so the potential is large.)

Traditional main streets serve much the same function. The growing antipathy to Wal-Mart and other big box stories comes from more than a concern about sub-living wages. “They don’t sell small-town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf,” said an opponent, “and once they take it from you, you can’t buy it back from them at any price.” Another put it more simply. “This is our town, not Wal-Mart’s

The social productivity of traditional main streets has a multiplier effect. Studies have shown that localities with large numbers of home grown businesses, along with community institutions and family farms, have higher median incomes and lower unemployment. States in which a large share of the retail business is locally owned, rank higher on a wide range of social, economic and civic measures.

One scholar who has studied this phenomenon, Charles Tolbert of Baylor University, cites a gas station owner in one town who switched from self-service to full service during a recession, and hired ten additional people. He had to charge more, but most of his customers kept coming anyway, because they understood that the extra pennies per gallon were providing jobs for their neighbors." (http://www.onthecommons.org/content.php?id=2396)


Six Policy Priorities

Philip Cryan:

"What kind of new urban strategies work best in achieving the economic, political and commons-based goals embodied in this bold declaration? That is the question this report seeks to propose some answers to. After evaluating dozens of groups across the nation dedicated to the idea that their cities should by governed of, by and for the people, six promising strategies emerged:

1.) Local Production for Local Needs

The community as a whole determines which of the things they value aren’t being adequately provided through a market-based system. They then search for the means to produce these things in their own community—many of which are commons such as health and cultural opportunites, rather than goods.

2.) A Green Economy that Works for All of Us

The necessary transition to a green economy that produces drastically fewer greenhouse gas emissions and environmental toxins must provide livelihoods for low-income city residents, who generally live in the most polluted neighborhoods and have a much smaller ecological footprint than either suburban or wealthy people.

3.) The Right to Housing

Families must not be forced from their homes as a result of speculation or deception practiced by others. Defense of every resident’s right to decent, affordable housing is a fundamental goal of a commons-based society.

4.) Community Land Trusts

This cooperative form of property ownership draws upon commons principles by taking land out of the real estate market, which increases people’s affordable housing options and grants community members the right to directly govern their own neighborhoods.

5.) Metropolitan Democracy

Because many of the inequities in public services, education, and economic opportunities throughout metropolitan regions arise from stark disparities in municipal tax revenues, we need new metro-wide institutions that can help level the playing field for residents of low-income communities.

6.) A New Kind of Governing

The best way to ensure the city belongs to all of us is to change how cities are governed, and by whom. That will mean the creation of a new political alignment that reaches across lines of race, class, geography, and specific issues. Also needed is a new approach in how we think of elections, elected officials and leadership development." (http://www.onthecommons.org/content.php?id=2399)