Tag Archives: commons

America’s Most Enduring Common Ground

Since 1634 the Boston Common has been shared by all

By: Giulio Caperchi

This article was originally published on May 10th 2013 in On The Commons Magazine

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

With only thirty British pounds, in 1634 John Winthrop and his Puritan followers purchased fifty acres of Reverend Blackstone’s land in what is today the heart of Boston. Part of that land was set aside for sheep grazing, a space which came to be known as the Boston Common, now America’s oldest public park.

The Boston Common has become the center of civic and social life of Boston. Pirates and Quakers were hanged from its trees, duels were fought on its grass and the red-coated occupying army camped on its hill. It has hosted public events for almost four hundred years, welcoming historical figures such as George Washington, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Most recently it hosted a very touching and spontaneous vigil for the Boston Bombings, featuring a church choir and a single banner reading “Peace Here and Everywhere.”

Above all, it is a place of common experiences, a repository of shared memories and a space shaped by the interactions of people from all walks of life. It is a “common” in the sense that we all share it and play an active role in shaping its social topography. In fact, the Boston Common is a living artifact of the commons movement’s history. A look into its early days will reveal how the ancient tradition of commoning was imbued into its very founding and can show us how the enduring legacy of a commons still serves Boston’s communities today.

The Boston Common was established in 1634 as a space to be used primarily for militia training and cattle grazing. Setting aside some acres of land for the town’s inhabitants was a custom the Puritans had brought over from England, an ancient tradition which gave common folk access to land in times when most estates were owned by the Crown. A town’s common was thus central to the food security and livelihoods of the common people.

In his book ‘The Magna Carta Manifesto” Historian Peter Linebaugh traces this ancient custom back to the Magna Carta, the document that forced King Henry I to grant liberties to English feudal barons in 1225. This document, often acknowledged as the forefather of modern constitutions, was accompanied by another one, the Charter of the Forest which granted rights of commons to the public at large.

The Charter of the Forest established wooded areas as commons and granted common folk rights within them. Herbage was the right to pasture and estovers were rights to forage wood. Beekeeping and hunting rights were also granted. Linebaugh concludes that the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest formally protected the livelihoods of the poor and ultimately “defined limits of privatization” [1].

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

In recognition of the important role played by such common spaces, in 1640 the town of Boston decided that the Common was to be preserved intact and should not be divided or parceled out: “henceforth there shall be no land granted wyther for houseplot or garden to any person out of the open ground and Common field.” And in 1666 the town finally decreed that “no common marish or pasture Ground shall hearafter by gifts or sayle, exchange or otherwise, be counted unto property without the consent of ye major part of ye inhabitants of ye town,” a law which stands to this day and which effectively prevents the privatization of the Boston Common [2].

The rights of commons and the heritage of the Charter of the Forest resurfaces in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, which granted rights of fishing and fowling to Bostonians on common lands: “Every Inhabitant that is an howse holder shall have free fishing and fowling in any great ponds and Bayes, Coves and Rivers, so farre as the sea ebbes and flowes within the prescincts of the towne where they dwell.”

In England however, common land and common rights were already beginning to disappear by the mid-sixteenth century in a process of land privatization known as the “enclosures.” The enclosing and privatizing of common land amounted to the wholesale exclusion of the poor from the common resources which had sustained their livelihoods for generations [3].

King Charles II, and his successor James II, had similar plans for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1684 Governor Edmund Andros was ordered by the Crown to revoke the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter and to sell all common land. Needless to say, the Crown’s planned enclosure of the Boston Common did not sit well with the hardy Puritans. It became one of the leading grievances of the 1689 Boston Revolt, which eventually led to the arrest of Governor Andros and to the reinstatement of the colony’s original charter along with its traditional land titles and rights [4].

Boston historian Robert Allison says the Common is a space which symbolizes historical continuity. While we are not allowed to graze our cattle on its green grass any longer, Allison notes that “the park is still in its original use: it is still a space used for religious assembly, political rallies, social mingling, and is still a burial ground. And to this day it remains a space for militia training, where on the first Monday of June the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, since 1638, still trains.”

Massachusetts State House and Common. By Giulio Caperchi

Massachusetts State House and Common. By Giulio Caperchi

The Boston Common’s history is steeped in the values, tradition and rich heritage of the commons movement. Its resilience throughout centuries bears testament to the pivotal role that public and common spaces play in the life and history of a community. Such spaces provide feelings of belonging, meaning and continuity, as well as physically recording how societies and cultures change throughout centuries.

In a world dominated by the rhetoric of fiscal austerity we cannot lose sight of the common spaces which tie our society together. Deficit reduction and budget balancing may well be this decade’s dominant logic, but it is our duty as members of our communities to uphold the political vocabulary of commons care as well. The efforts of the city of Boston and of its citizens (for almost four hundred years) to protect and cherish the Boston Common are a paradigmatic example of commons care, and are a testament to the social, civic and collective benefits that a shared space brings to us all.


[1] Linenbaugh, P. 2008, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons For All. (University of California Press: Berkeley)

[2] Friends of the Public Park, 2008, Images of America: The Boston Common. (Arcadia Publishing: Great Britain)

[3] Mattei, U. 2011. Beni Comuni: un manifesto. (Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy)

[4] Allison, R. 2004. A Short History of Boston. (Commonwealth Publishing: MA)

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Defining the Commons

River Gorge, by C. Krieghoff. Courtesy of Wikipedia

What exactly are “the commons”? Is water a common? Is the environment as a whole a common? Is education a common? And who exactly is in charge of governing these commons?

As the word suggests, the commons are resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons.

However, the commons remains an elusive term, one which at times evades a precise definition. And this, sadly, is a pitfall. Without a clear definition and a coherent vocabulary with which to talk about the commons it becomes very difficult to protect them from instances of privatization, particularly when they must be defended through legislative means.

My aim here is to explore two different dimensions of the commons with hopes to provide firstly a coherent idea of what a commons actually consists of, and secondly to offer a political vocabulary with which to talk about them. By taking a look at the work of Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom, we will present a working definition of the commons and explore their empirical dimension. Secondly, I wish to present the recent and innovative work of Italian jurist Ugo Mattei, which examines the sociological and political dimension of the commons.

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy of Wikipedia

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal study Governing the Commons (1990) is premised on a refutation of Gareth Hardin’s basic assumption in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Hardin believed that individuals inevitably end up over-exploiting and degrading common resources. In his article, he presents an example of herders using a grazing field in common: without an external monitor the herders will increase the size of their herds unsustainably which will result in the over-grazing of the common field. Echoing a Hobbesian world-view, he states that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit – in a world that is limited”[1].

Policy-makers have since interpreted the Tragedy of the Commons as a paradigmatic example of individuals destroying their own resources, thereby causing environmental degradation. As a result, some policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property[2].

Ostrom believes that both privatization and governmental control are policies based on generalizing and totalizing presumptions. Moreover, she refutes Hardin’s assumption that individuals are incapable of self-governing their resources. Contrarily, for Ostrom “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time”[3]. Individuals are not “trapped” in the tragedy of the commons paradigm, but are capable of creating their own institutions, rules and enforcement mechanisms which ensure the sustainable use of such resources.

By comparing case studies in which individuals were successful in overcoming the tragedy of the commons with cases in which they were not, Ostrom draws a set of variables and prerequisites which provide a general framework for self-governing and self-financed institutions. These include mutual monitoring, agreeing on rules written by the users of the common resource, establishing legitimate arbitrators, and instituting policies which incentivize collaboration and discourage free-riding[4].

Ostrom defines the subject of her book as common pool resources: resources which 1) produce a steady flow of resource units (benefits accruing from the resource), and 2) resources that are so large (an ocean for example) that excluding the individuals that use them unsustainably becomes almost impossible –hence her stress on the maximization of collaboration between users of common pool resources. The success of self-governing institutions, concludes Ostrom, proves that policies of privatization and government control are not the only alternatives open to us[5].

The second dimension of the commons I wish to talk about, can be found in the work of Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist deeply involved in the recent and successful efforts of preventing the privatization of public water in Italy. Mattei explores the historical, sociological and political development of the commons as well as their relationship with social movements and political contention in his book “Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto” (Common Goods: a Manifesto).

For Mattei, the commons are first and foremost contextual and contingent. By this he means that they acquire meaning the moment in which they are demanded for politically. For example, water has always existed as a natural resource, and yet it does not become “a commons” until individuals find that their access to it has been restricted by instances of privatization or bureaucratization. The commons “come into existence”, if you will, the moment they become relevant or even vital for a particular social end. Their political dimension is therefore shaped by the social context in which the demand for them has originated[6].

In addition, Mattei believes that a particular commons, say a forest, cannot be divorced from the cultural, social, economic or environmental context in which it exists. In such a way, it cannot be understood as an object separate from its surrounding territory, but rather as an integral part of complex human-ecological systems[7].

However, Mattei distinguishes the political demand for the defense of the commons from a demand for a right as understood by the political theory of classical liberalism. For example, human rights are transcendental rights which one possesses in virtue of being human. The demand for the commons, contrarily, is not claiming a right which exists separately from the individual claiming it. The demand for a common is not transcendental but relational: it is the object of struggle between communities attempting to defend them and structures of authority seeking to control them (be these property rights or state sovereignty)[8]. This type of demands are essentially dynamic relations of political contention.

And yet, Mattei asserts that the commons are absolutely central to the fulfillment of the rights pertaining to the classical liberal tradition. The human rights to food, water and education, for example, cannot be fulfilled unless these are recognized as common goods or common resources which we all, in virtue of being alive, owe to each other and have the responsibility to maintain for generations to come[9].

This very brief foray into the work of Elinor Ostrom and Ugo Mattei has served firstly to provide the empirical foundations for talking about the commons, and secondly to explore their sociological and political dimensions. Today, commons such as water, education, genetic heritage or culture are increasingly privatized in the name of a financial state of exception. Governments are forced to devolve and divest themselves of what were once seen as core responsibilities towards their citizens. As the State retreats we must ask ourselves who will protect our common resources from callous economic exploitation and environmental degradation. For now, the movement in defense of the commons is laying down the empirical, sociological and political groundwork for just this task.

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi


  • Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Hardin 1969, in Ostrom, 1990, p2

[2] Ostrom, 1990, p14

[3] Ostrom, 1990, p1

[4] Ostrom, 1990, p183

[5] Ostrom, 1990, p30

[6] Mattei, 2011, p53

[7] Mattei,2011, p, 62

[8] Mattei, 2011, p57

[9] Mattei, 2011, p59

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