area mapIn my rambling post last year about community (ours) I described how once a year we set up a ‘goofy golf’ course in our neighbourhood. The 100-acre fence-free community has nine ‘holes’, with a one-foot diameter pail sunk in the lawn for each hole and a numbered flag in each. We trim the grass around the hole and the tee-off area, print up a bunch of maps and scorecards, and invite everyone in the neighbourhood to try out the course, using a sand wedge and a tennis ball. Some people put out coolers of beer, wine and soft drinks by the tee on their property. We have a big barbecue at the end of the day and offer prizes for the best and worst scores. It’s a great exercise in community building and is now a neighbourhood tradition, with a phenomenal turnout.

Contrast this to what happens all too often in ‘community’ and ‘recreation’ centres: People don’t take care of the facilities, which are often starved for funds. User fees are needed to make up the difference, which are often unaffordable for many in the community. So the ‘community’ centre becomes and underused private sports facility for the wealthy, and the not-so-wealthy hang around instead in malls and parking lots outside convenience stores.

There are exceptions of course — some community centres are absolute godsends that help cohere an otherwise disconnected community. But in my experience most are not. Why is this? Is it just another manifestation of the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby the minute something is owned by more than one family its facilities are neglected and desecrated? Is this something inherent in community ownership, or is it an issue of scale and size: The greater the number of people that share something, the more likely each person is to expect others to look after it, and lose the ‘pride of ownership’ that causes them to take proper care of it?

Raymond de Young suggests the answer is more complex than mere size of the community. He says that commons (i.e. shared resources) only avert the tragedy when they are managed by an inclusive, durable, self-initiated and self-managed group. Our makeshift ‘goofy golf’ course meets those criteria. But how scalable are they? The number 150 has been frequently proposed as the upper limit for most functional social networks (our neighbourhood has about 100 people). What do you do when the commons is too large, complex or expensive to be sustained and managed by a community of only 150 people — a large municipal park, or a community stadium or theatre, or recreation centre? Break these up into smaller, more easily manageable units and you significantly lower their utility.

The alternatives when self-management isn’t viable, as Don Dwiggins has pointed out, are (a) abolish commons and privatize everything (the neocon solution), or (b) impose strong government control (the liberal solution). But neither has a good track record. Is there another answer?

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  1. Cindy Strickland says:

    What about a core group of volunteers who maintain the tradition, but are conscientious about inviting new folks to participate and learn and improve on the tradition? I’m thinking of the parent group at my daughter’s school as an example.

  2. Bob L. says:

    Co-Housing is a movement that’s about 40 years old in Europe and 15 in the US based on group housing that includes common areas. There are about 200 in the US, I think. They usually include common recreation areas and housing surrounding greenspace with parking on the periphery. In the US they top out with about 80-90 people, but some of the European projects are bigger.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Cindy: Much like Gladwell’s ‘connectors’, I think outreach volunteers help any community stay healthy and connected. Do you think that might allow a community to scale larger than 150?Bob: This has to be better than big condos anyway. I live in one when I was younger and its ‘elected’ council that oversaw the common areas was a group of little hitlers who passed hundreds of regulations and restrictions on the common areas in order to keep costs (and condo fees) down — rendering the common areas dysfunctional and hence unused. I also used to audit a condo and at the annual residents’ meetings fights would break out between the elected officers and disgruntled residents — the condo model is, I think, an example of Tragedy of the Commons at its worst.

  4. Don Dwiggins says:

    I think there’s another parameter here, aside from the size of the population involved: the time allowed over which viable governance structures can emerge.One commons I’ve read about is a real-world counterpart of Hardin’s example: the plains of East Africa on which the Masai tribes grazed their cattle. The tribes were nomadic, and developed over time an effective set of constraints concerning overgrazing and overuse of water sources (these constraints had the force of moral authority). The populations of individual bands was probably less than your 150 number, but the total Masai population using the commons was no doubt several times larger. (I’m using the past tense here, since I don’t know what changes they’ve undergone due to outside contact.)I also remember a documentary about an area in Southern Asia (don’t remember where, and haven’t been able to find more information) in which an elaborate set of irrigation channels was set up to distribute water equitably to farmers’ fields; again, there was an elaborate set of moral constraints that ensured fair distribution and the conservation of the resource. I’d guess that more than 150 individual farms were involved, but I couldn’t swear to it.(This was another example where “modern” capitalist economics was forcibly substituted for the evolved system, and soon led to the resource being overused and depleted, and to serious conflicts among the residents. The documentary focused on the steps the locals were taking to restore the anient system. Wisdom of crowds, perhaps, at least when they have enough time to properly evolve pragmatic dynamic structures.)I guess the upshot here is that I’m not convinced that there’s any commons that can’t be self-managed (i.e., managed by the polity of the stakeholders in the commons). In fact, I seriously doubt that a commons can be successfully and sustainably managed in any other way.

  5. Rael Bassan says:

    There is also a mixed multi-organizational level (government — local/volunteer)water commons administration that has been functioning for centuries in managing acequia irrigation ditch systems. It was brought to our continent from Spain, where conflicts were mediated by the Tribunal de las Aguas (Water Court.)See http://www.geocities.com/jacinta_palerm/noruega.htmlSelf-Management of Irrigation Systems, a Typology: The Mexican Case

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Don: Agreed. It would be interesting to see whether, in natural systems with large commons, the community self-organizes into “groups of groups”, kind of like quantum levels in particle physics, where each group is a self-manageable size, and acts as an individual entity in sharing a large commons with other groups. If so, it would be an interesting model for ‘municipal’ government, formed around ‘natural’ self-selected communities instead of political ‘wards’ with arbitrary boundaries.Rael: Conflict resolution is an important issue that I haven’t given enough thought to. I think we instinctively know how to resolve conflicts (just watch properly socialized dogs when they meet for the first time — they have a quick and peaceful ritual for resolving differences), but we ‘forget’ it when we’re taught the legal process, which is inherently adversarial and an awful and inhumane way to resolve differences. We have a lot to learn, and to unlearn.

  7. gerry@geraldgleason.com says:

    A more comprehensive paper about research into this issues can be found in Elinor Ostrom’s Coping with the Tragedy of the Commons.” I note that two earlier papers by this author are in de Young’s references at the end of his paper. In a way, he summarizes what this more detailed paper lays the theoretical and experimental foundations for. Thanks for the link.

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