olympic national park
Nothing cuts through to the core of the debate between those that believe all property should be private (notably the current US Presnit) and those that believe some, or even most, property should be held in common, as public property available for the enjoyment of all, than the issue of lakefront and riverfront (‘riparian’) access rights. Googling the topic brings up a horde of lawsuits, neighbour vs. neighbour fights, and political grandstanding. What is amazing is that, at least in North America, there appears to be no overarching principle, no constitutional right either to access of recreational and wilderness land (notably beach and waterfront), or alternatively to restrict access to such land as part of basic property ‘rights’. So these disputes are decided in the trenches — in municipal courtrooms, based most often on the wording of ancient deeds and easements than on principled grounds.

Yule Heibel has a delightful post this week that got me thinking about this again. She lives in Victoria BC, where my wife and I lived for five years, and where public rights of access to much (all?) waterfront areas are sacrosanct, under municipal law, except for rare ‘grandfathered’ cases. She exults in the freedom and the sense of community that such laws engender, and contrasts this with the situation in Massachusetts, where almost all waterfront areas are restricted to individual owners and “residents”. She says she learned how to covet from her years there. My reaction would be anger, not covetousness, and, like Yule, I might be tempted to chalk the difference up to Canadian vs. US culture. In my community, we only put up a fence if it is needed to keep pets in, and only then with permission of the neighbours and an open invitation to use the gates to pass through. The Toronto waterfront is almost entirely public access, with parks and walking trails running the entire breadth of the city.

But I would be wrong to chalk this up to Canada-US cultural differences. There are areas in the US where public beach and lake access are enshrined in at least municipal law. And there are areas in Canada where they are not. I remember going for a drive up to Lake Simcoe, about an hour North of Toronto, and being astonished at the signs wherever there was a lake view saying “No parking any time without resident sticker — strictly enforced”. Visitors could drive by, but not stop, not touch, this ‘private’ lake. And right in my own municipality there is a small park with soccer fields, apparently donated by a private citizen, with a municipal sign saying “Park use by permit only — no dogs allowed”.

As much as I am offended by these restrictions, no matter where they may be (I was equally astounded to find many beaches in the Caribbean off-limits to citizens, fenced and guarded to allow only foreign, paying guests in), I am perhaps even more amazed that, in the absence of any constitutional principle, the situation is not much worse. It says a great deal for the people of those communities that do protect the rights of citizens to the enjoyment of the ‘best’ land — waterfront, recreational, parkland and wilderness — that they do so in the face of those with money and power who would secrete these special lands for the exclusive use of the privileged. I don’t know how it might be worded, but I believe it is time we enshrined the right of all citizens to access and enjoyment of all such land without discrimination, before the forces of privatization take away what is left, before the final act in the Tragedy of the Commons is writ.

What is the law where you live? Is it as patchwork and arbitrary as it is here? Or are you able to say, as Yule does,

This is mine, it’s all mine, it all belongs to me, and it belongs to you, and to you, and to you, too! It’s ours, ours, ours! How do you do?, lovely to see you, I hope you, too, are enjoying our beautiful land! This meadow?, this mountain?, this ocean?, this view? Yes, it’s mine, and it’s magnificent, isn’t it? And I know you must believe this, because of course it’s yours, too! We share this!
This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to WE SHARE THIS LAND

  1. Hmm, interesting. Here in Winnipeg, MB most lake access is via provincial parks which require a fee to get in. I’m not sure what the restrictions are to accessing crown land in general here…

  2. I understand your point of view Dave about having more “public” areas, as i told you in my last e-mail i live in Mexico city, most of the areas are publics but we share “our” space 20 millions of persons, i dont really know if there is the overcrowd or culture or what really is, but the true its that no body cares for anything, the goverment dont have money enought to take care about gardens or fountains and the people dont feel the things like really “there things” so people neither take care about it, so personally i prefere the private places where you pay to enjoy something beatifull.When you pay the people take more care about the stuffs, you can clearly see this changes in the social clubs that are buyed for some private company or person change radically.

  3. Philip says:

    Oregon Beaches are “public” from the vegatation line to the water and access to them by the public cannot be prevented (no fences allowed) they are not “owned” by anyone as they are not designated as state or federal lands. The only trully unrestricted part of the beach is the wet sand line. Portions of the beach may enjoy restricted access if they are designated as nesting or habitat for endangered species (i.e. the Snowy Plover). There are over 33 million acres of “Public” land in Oregon. 2.2 million is designated Protected Wilderness the rest of it is pretty much open to anyone who has a use for it although in addition to the 2.2 million acres of formal wilderness we have an additional 5 million roadless acres.Land ownership is another one of those strange ideas I don’t understand. “Society” grants us a lease on certain portions of our earth in exchange for money (another artificial/arbitrary idea). I tell you if I was from another planet I might think humans to be an insane species. All we really need is a safe place to sleep, rest, and raise out families.

  4. Paul says:

    All beaches in the United States are property of the federal government. In part this is due to issues of national security. There are occassions, such as in the Malibu area, where beach owners attempt to maintains privacy right with fencing.Lakes are different, simply in part due to how you define the term “lake”. Think about it. What’s the legal/scientific difference between a “lake” and a “pond”?

  5. Doug Alder says:

    There usedto be a law in Canada – and I don’t know if it is still in effect – where if you effected a passageway across public or private land and kept it open an in use for 7 years without it being blocked by government or private owner then that passageway was deemed to be a public access right of way and it could not be closed. Many a private landowner in rural BC has made use of that to create private crossings over CN and CP tracks in order to shorten the drive from their homestead to town. If they got away with it for 7 years the railroad would actually have to improve the crossing to meet standards.

  6. Yule Heibel says:

    You’re probably right, Dave, that it’s not fair or accurate to chalk the diffs up to Canada-US differences, since comparing Victoria to Greater Boston is like comparing sparrows to the 800-lbs gorilla! ;-) But I do do that sometimes (a lot?): write something and then think about and qualify it later, sometimes just in my head, sometimes in comments. I haven’t gone back to the comments on my piece just yet because I’m sick with whatever my kids had last week, but since you’re pointing to the piece, here’s where I would start qualifying what I wrote: Population density has a lot to do with one’s feeling of access (and the actual access). As your reader from Mexico City points out, if you have 20 million people clamoring for access, public areas are going to be overburdened. They’ll have the tendency to look like ashtrays after a while, or, even if they don’t, you’re so busy jostling your neighbours that you can’t lift your eyes to the scenery anymore ’cause you’ll get a poke in the eye from someone’s too-close elbow. Second, population density is also a factor in the East Coast v. West Coast phenomenon, I think. One person commented on my post that access is why people headed West, to California, for example, because back East, everything was fenced off and off-limits. True, but they also did it to get away from overcrowding. Eventually, though, everything’s going to be overcrowded (look at the Bay Area, look at Vancouver), and without decent planning, it’s going to make us ever more rabidly darwinian and land-grabbing and “gated.” Huge areas of land simply must be kept public and close-by — the ratio has to be considered (people to area) and it’s no good if access means that you have to get in your car and drive for an hour to reach parks. In Beverly, Mass. I knew of kids who lived in Gloucester Crossing (the “wrong side of the tracks”) who had never been to Lynch Park even though Beverly was their home. Their parents didn’t take them, even though the park wasa mere 20 minute brisk walk from where they lived, and as young teens they were unable to read a map and find the way. (They also had no idea where the public library was.) Now imagine if public land access is a car ride away! What’s great in Victoria is that every neighbourhood — from snooty Uplands and Oak Bay to somewhat rougher “gang-infested” (yes, we have them even here…) neighbourhoods have parks. We also have a great public bus transportation system, which makes it easy to get just about anywhere, including hard to reach spots. Re. the comment that US beaches are federally owned, I remember getting into near-fights with some Beverly Farms residents who refused to understand that they couldn’t claim the sand below the hightide mark as “their property.” I too thought this was public, regardless, but either the homeowners come after you, yelling, or else the “community” solves the problem with “resident only” parking signs. Since there are no buses going to these places, you keep the riff-raff out that way. I do think the East Coast, specifically the Boston to DC corridor, is a pressure-cooker that subtly changes your mental habits and thought processes. Part of what I was blogging about focussed on that: the idea that social structures bend you toward a habit of acquisition as the only mode of survival, which is what I meant with the “coveting” business. It’s insidious and everywhere, and if you have kids, the social structure is designed to convince you to mortgage your soul — and your grandparents and your dog and everything — to “move up” into “desirable” school systems. Another one of those awful chimeras. Which brings up another issue: affordable housing. That’s a huge problem we’ve got in our picture-postcard places here, Victoria and Vancouver. (In fact, we decided in 2002 to move to Victoria, where I grew up, rather than to Vancouver, where we used to live, because houses are too expensive in Vancouver, unless you live way out in the boonies, which thwarts once again the whole idea of the beautiful urban planning which you want to enjoy. (And meanwhile, because people are moving out to the boonies for affordability reasons, the city’s streets are choked with traffic…) Well, we’ve got a huge problem with affordability in Victoria now — real estate prices have gone through the roof in the last 12-18 months, even while downtown streets are starting to sport those ugly empty-lot looks. So now it’s time to get the Councillors to move on building multi-use downtown housing, with affordable units and not just the luxury assisted-living units, and try to plan, plan, plan. Anyway, I ramble. As I said, I’ve got this virus or something, so I’ll sign off now. But yeah, How to Save the World, that’s the thing, isn’t it? We sure can’t keep going forward with increasing darwinism and privatisation of everything.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip: Love the last sentence of your comment above — that what it’s all about, isn’t it?Yule: My wife and I (we met in Victoria in 1980) both lost money on our homes there when we sold to move to Ontario. *Sigh*. The challenge with planning is that the planning units are centralized and homogenized, removed from the people that live there, the sense of unique place, and too large to do anything but succumb to the wishes and plans of developers, who care nothing about community, diversity, sense of place, or local culture. Or if they *are* local (like condo councils and gated community ‘presidents’) they end up obsessed with restricting anything that would ‘reduce property values’, which means anything different from every other carbon-copy development. We need a method of allowing groups of like-minded people to identify each other and self-organize *true* local communities, that can be planned for the long-term benefit and well-being of the whole community, on its own terms, instead of focusing strictly on real estate ROI. Those communities could actually function without individual private property, and could serve as models for broader communal ownership of land and property, and ultimately lead to the elimination of the need for any ‘ownership’ of property. But I’m not sure we have the time left for the re-evolution of shared community to occur.Hope I’ll have the chance to meet with some of you if you’re in the Toronto area — I’d love to show you our community and some of the things that make it very special.

Comments are closed.