10 – Commons 2017-08-01T06:38:09+00:00

Pattern #10


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Credits: Rich KoeleTero HakalaconnelPearlNecklace – Shutterstock

The commons includes anything which supports quality of life and is available to all. Nature is the most obvious example—especially air and water (land, animals and plants having become owned) but cultural commons like languages, institutions, procedures, arts, expectations, and history are potent common ground. So understand, value, support, reclaim, and learn from the commons.

Related: 7 Checks on Extreme Inequality, 21 E Pluribus Unum, 28 Generating Shared Orientation, 40 Nature First, 51 Restrained Liberty, 56 Spaces for Dialogue and Collaboration, 63 Universal Participation

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

If you want a wise democracy, you need to have very rich commons to encourage people being together and taking responsibility together. There is an associated pattern called “Deep Time Stewardship” which is very closely tied to the commons. Everybody is taking care of it, this thing which we all use.  It is ours. It is something that includes everybody: “We use the streets.” “We use the sidewalks.” They are part of our commons. We need to take care of them.

Nature is too often assumed to either be there as a commons and not well taken care of, or it is owned and not totally available to everyone else.  Whenever you see privatization activities, that means that pieces of the commons are being contained and changed into commodities. The commons is not a commodity. Take a look at the fact that as our water gets polluted, more people are drinking bottled water.  This is an example of not taking care of the commons, not stewarding the commons in a way that maintains it as a commons. It becomes something which is part of the landscape but is not usable by people.  Even air and water are becoming colonized.

Lots of people think the commons is nature and we should take care of it, but a lot of the built environment is also commons, like sidewalks. I wrote a poem about that, “As Democratic as a Sidewalk”.  But note that anybody can walk on the sidewalk, but you can’t sleep or sit on the sidewalk. In some places there’s lots of efforts to close down the commons.

There are also cultural commons, the often nonphysical aspects of life that we all live with. People share language and care about it, and there are people who try to preserve languages, there’s people who try to defend their right to use them. Diverse languages around the world embody different ways of looking at things. In some languages you can say things you can’t say in other languages. I know people who are working to preserve languages, even as the cultures that they belong to are going extinct. They are desperately trying to preserve the language because it has its own value. It would be nice if the culture could be preserved also, but in the onslaught of globalization and economies, cultures that go along with that – or succumb to it – often lose valuable parts of themselves, and sometimes you need to take a piece of such a culture and preserve it.

So we need to be thinking globally in terms of what is a commons, and what we want to preserve. Institutions, legislatures, government are part of the commons.  We want to preserve that, we want to have that honored, respected, treated well, even as we work to have our governments live up to their highest ideals. Some of the candidates for Prime Minister or President basically act as if they honor the institutions, but take actions that corrode and degrade them. So again, we want to steward the commons and protect it.

Procedures, the ways we do things, that’s a big part of culture. If we share the way we do things and people are violating that all the time in merely disrespectful or ignorant ways, there needs to be energy to preserve it. And there also needs to be energy to change these things when necessary. For example, when a commons is becoming exclusionary by the way it functions, we need open it back up, to make it beneficial to everybody.

The arts is another big cultural commons.  There is lots of public art and there’s even lots of co-creation of public art. People are sometimes encouraged to participate in making murals in a community. There is a celebration in Springfield, Oregon, which is near Eugene where I live, where people do chalk drawings on the street. There is a contest of who can do the nicest chalk drawing. It is just fascinating to watch those chalk drawings, those murals being made right on the street.

Our history is a commons, something we all share.  But again there’s a need to expand it, to redefine what the history is so that it is more inclusive. History used to be just wars between white men or of white men against other people. And then it became, “We want to have the women represented” and “We want to have black history.” We want and need to have all these other histories take their place in the larger history. And all this is building, nurturing and preserving a commons.

All that is part of this potential, these pieces of the puzzle and perspectives that are buried in the commons, as well as the sense that we’re all in it together, and all of that is really important for having a wise democracy. So a wise approach to building democracy will support the commons, reclaim it when it is being colonized, expand it, learn from it, take lessons from it for any decisions that are being made. So it is a living relationship between the wisdom dimension of democracy and the commons dimension of democracy.

Video Introduction (12 min)

Examples and Resources

Public libraries are such a great example of a commons. There’s now tool lending libraries being created. People are creating other kinds of libraries that may or may not be associated with book libraries.  Libraries embody the idea that we can have a shared body of stock that anybody can borrow from if they play by the rules.

Then there’s the School of Commoning that exists that trains people in thinking and acting this way and the P2P (Peer to Peer) Foundation. The sense of having spaces where we as individual peers come together and work on common projects. There is a P2P website that looks at all those kinds of phenomenon going on in societies, which is a great source of information about the commons.

There is a wiki for posting things about the commons.

National parks are another great example, and they need stewardship, as I mentioned.

Our Children’s Trust Suit is a really interesting example which I have participated in. It is a bunch of kids who are concerned about the environment, particularly climate change and they are suing state and federal governments in the US about not taking responsibility for providing for their commons. There is a doctrine called the public trust doctrine, whereby the government holds our commons in trust for future generations and for the broad public. And when the government doesn’t take adequate action to deal with climate change, they are violating the public trust and these children, who range in age from eight or 10 up to 19 say, “You have to change your ways! We are bringing this to the courts to decide.” Eugene, Oregon, is one of the centers for that. So I’m happy to participate in that.

CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – is a totally co-created commons. Participants are saying, “We are going to participate in a farm that is in fact all of ours. We are supporting it, we are not just buying produce.  We are saying, ‘Here’s a bunch of money. Do your farming and give us some of the produce you grow.’” In many places the people who subscribe to a CSA also go out and work on the farm, particularly during harvest time. Around Tokyo there are CSA’s with thousands of subscribers, many of whom go out to the farms at harvest time, helping to harvest and can produce, etc.

Community Land Trusts involves ownership of a bunch of land by the community.  You can build your house on it, or do your activities on it – you can even own what’s what’s being put on it – but you don’t own the land. Having communal ownership of land is really important.

Then there’s the whole cooperative movement:  “Whatever we’re doing, we’re holding it in common.” It is like creating chunks of the commons within and for different groups, and supporting the spread of local cooperative ways of doing things and cooperative attitudes.

Creative Commons Licensing means, “We’re not going to copyright this or patent it in a way that totally holds it away from other people. To some extent that we want specified, we want our rights to be honored, but we are also specifying that you, whoever you are, can use this in various specific ways.” So Creative Commons Licensing is loosening up the tight hold most copyrighted things have on intellectual, electronic, and physical creativity.

Then there are the public schools. The idea that it’s part of the rights of people to get educated, particularly children. And we’re going to provide a common space where anybody can go and get an education without having to pay for it.

I realize I don’t have healthcare in here, because the United States doesn’t have a health care commons. Many European countries and some other countries do have healthcare that’s freely available for everyone. It is part of their commons to be taken care of and to benefit everybody, and anybody can participate. Everybody participates in making it work out for everybody.  That’s the idea behind a sustainable commons.

History Commons Link

Wise democracy is largely about sustaining all our commons, and our commons provide a foundation for the work we do for and as a wise democracy.


  1. Andy Paice April 14, 2017 at 4:37 am - Reply

    Tom and Martin,
    Congratulations on such a fantastic website!
    Regarding the core definition of this pattern, from my experience of being involved with Commoning groups there is distinction between what a Commons is and a Common Pool Resource. The definition here seems closer to that of the latter.

    Here’s some definitions from David Bollier: http://bollier.org/commons-short-and-sweet

    First what a Commons is not –
    The commons is not a resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources. Many resources urgently need to be managed as commons, such as the atmosphere, oceans, genetic knowledge and biodiversity.

    There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit. Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied. And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons. The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun. A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

    Second definitions of what the Commons is:

    A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.

    A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.

    The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.

    A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State

    Very best wishes!

    • tomatlee April 15, 2017 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      That’s a fascinating – and probably more holistic – way to look at Commons, Andy, albeit different from the mainstream sense of it. That mainstream sense of commons is reflected in the Wikipedia entry on the subject https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons and the dictionary definition (“land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community”). This definition is reflected in one of the definitions you give above: “The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children” – which obviously would include the Deep Time Stewardship pattern as a perhaps missing “related pattern” to this Commons pattern. I will put in the resources section both your link to Bollier and the great P2PF Wiki great discussion of “commoning” https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Commoning. I can imagine this pattern evolving into Commons and Commoning for WD-PL Version 2.0….

  2. Andy Paice April 14, 2017 at 4:41 am - Reply

    I also just realised that the fact that there are ‘no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons.’ means this pattern language would be of potential great use to people who identinfy as commoners.

    • tomatlee April 15, 2017 at 4:43 pm - Reply

      In my explorations around my comment above I stumbled on a book exploring Patterns of Commoning, which I’ve added to the resources list.

  3. Andy April 17, 2017 at 1:12 am - Reply

    Thanks Tom. Yes I have the patterns of commoning book which is a loosely structured collection of essays about the Commons. I think this website could be very inspiring for people involved in that field – it’s very closely related to this.

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