Reclaiming Common Spaces

Enclosure is the process by which a commons is taken for private use and gain. It has a long history. War and conquest excepted, the original enclosures in Anglo-American history largely were the work of the British Parliament, which parceled out the common lands to private owners, often with inadequate compensation—if any—for the commoners whose rights and subsistence were taken in the process.

The U.S. government followed the example of its British parent on many fronts. The Dawes Act in 1887 broke up the tribal commons for many Native Americans and imposed on them a private ownership regime, as did the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act a century later. The North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted in 1994, declared the water commons a private commodity for purposes of international trade. It also helped erode the ejido system of land tenure in Mexico, which was based on communal rather than market values.30

The parceling out of the broadcast airwaves to private corporations was part of this same lineage. In recent decades the process has metastasized from discrete acts into a wholesale assault. From the microcosm of the gene pool to the far reaches of space,

The Parallel Economy of the Commons corporations have been transgressing all boundaries and laying claim to that which previously was assumed to belong to all.

Often corporations have direct help from government, such as the expansion of the intellectual property laws that made possible the patenting of seeds and genes. The Bush administration has worked to parcel out tracts of ocean to corporate fish farmers. There are efforts in Congress to privatize outer space as well, for the purpose of advertising. The momentum now is so great that corporations often need no direct help at all.31

The escalating enclosures of recent decades have prompted a response that is almost like an autoimmune reaction. Spontaneously, all over the world, people are seeking to reestablish boundaries and to reclaim territory that has been lost. The environmental movement is one example of this, as are the campaigns against corporate globalism and genetically modified (that is, corporately enclosed) food.

This is a movement that defies standard ideological categories. Genuine conservatives oppose the decimation of traditional main streets by "big box" stores and the com-modification of childhood, among other things. Those of a more leftward bent oppose as well the enclosure of university research by a corporate patent regime, the privatizing of water and other resources, and a host of kindred incursions.

Boundaries are not the only issue. There also has been an instinctive groping back to the social dynamic that animated the early commons and made resource sharing in them possible. Community gardens have become increasingly popular in North America, for example. There have been no official surveys, but the American Community Gardening Association estimates there are now roughly 18,000 such gardens in the United States, with 750 in New York City alone. In

Toronto, the number increased from 14 to 69 between 1987 and 1997. These operate much the way the original common field agriculture did in England. People have their own plots but often share tools and know-how, and pitch in on maintenance as well. The result is generative socially as well as agriculturally. A study in upstate New York found that a third of the gardens gave rise to broader neighborhood improvement projects such as tree planting and crime watch. "It is very peaceful now," said a resident of Richmond, Vir-gina, about a community garden reclaimed from a decrepit neighborhood park. "It brings people together." (See also Chapter 11.)32 Another example is the revival of common spaces in cities across the United States, from Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon, to Copley Square in Boston. Three decades ago Detroit tried to renew its decaying downtown with a corporate fortress called Renaissance Center. The Center became a white-collar island, the decay continued, and renaissance never came. In the late 1990s, someone had the idea of taking the opposite approach. Instead of a private corporate space, the city would create an open common one.33 The result is Campus Martius, in the heart of downtown. Symbolically enough, Detroit actually rerouted automotive traffic to accommodate it. (The Renaissance Center had housed the corporate offices of General Motors.) Now life is coming back downtown. There are some 200 concerts and events a year, plus ice skating in the winter. People are coming in from the suburbs. Investment is coming too: some $500 million worth. The Compuware corporation has moved 4,000 employees in from the suburbs to be close to this new center of activity.34 This actually is how markets began—in common spaces, especially the plazas around churches. Markets were festive social occasions before they became "economic" ones in the

The Parallel Economy of the Commons narrow modern sense. Farmers' markets today are direct descendents of those early ones, and they are spreading rapidly for much the same reason. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers' markets grew by 150 percent between 1994 and 2006. Today there are more than 4,300 in the United States, and people are flocking to them not just for local and organic food. It is also for the festive sociability, the fun of being out among neighbors, the freedom from the hyper-calculated marketing enclosures of corporate supermarkets and malls.35 Neighbors are starting to create their own

At present the institution that best embodies commons functions outside the public sphere is the trust.

common spaces for this kind of spontaneous sociability. In Portland, the City Repair project is turning traffic intersections into public squares. In Baltimore and Boston, neighbors have closed off back alleys and turned them into commons for their blocks. In some cases people actually have shortened their own backyards in order to make the common space larger. The so-called New Urbanism—which is really the old village-ism—expresses a similar desire to restore social content and interaction to the normal flow of daily life.36

Such movements are not about expanding the governmental sphere. To the contrary, they are about stopping incursions into the commons sphere and protecting the generative social process (as opposed to the bureau-cratized governmental process) that occurs there. They are parallel expressions of the social productivity that is emerging on the World Wide Web. Together they provide a template for a new/old kind of resource management as well.

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