|In 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?