What We Own Together is Key to Better Lives

By Jay Walljasper, guest columnist  on April 13, 2016 for The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa).

The disaster with Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, incited by political leaders more devoted to fiscal austerity than the common good, illuminates why it’s important to think of our communities as commons, which belong to all residents not just the wealthy and politically powerful.

The commons means the many things we share together rather than own privately — a list that starts with air, water, parks and streets and expands to include more complex entities such as the Internet, civic organizations and entire communities.

Civic commons like parks, sanitation systems, public schools, transit, libraries, hospitals, private and public social welfare agencies emerged in the 19th century in remedy to squalid living conditions that existed in many towns and cities. And the new interest in the commons that is surfacing today is connected to already existing movements to address racial and economic inequality, environmental problems, neighborhood vitality and walkability in the places we call home.

“The idea of the urban commons still is very much in development,” said Sheila Foster, Professor at Fordham University’s Urban Law Center. In a groundbreaking paper she co-wrote with Italian urban expert Christian Iaione, they outline four major foundations of community commons:

• The city or town is an open resource where all people can share public space and interact.

• The city or town exists for widespread collaboration and cooperation.

• The city or town is generative, producing for human nourishment and human need.

• The city or town is a partner in creating conditions where commons can flourish.

So how do incorporate the values and benefits of the commons into our daily lives? Here are 20 ideas about how to improve your community by acting on the belief that it belongs to all of us.

1. Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions. Many times we is better than me. Would you want to be in charge of purifying drinking water every day for your family?

2. Offer a smile or greeting to people you pass. Community begins with connecting — even in brief, spontaneous ways.

3. Notice how many of life’s true pleasures exist outside the commercial realm of buying and selling — gardening, fishing, kissing, conversation, playing music, playing ball, enjoying nature, and more.

4. Walk, bike, or take transit whenever you can. It’s good for the environment, but also for you. How many friends have you made from behind the wheel of your car?

5. Treat common spaces as if you own them (which, actually, you do). Pick up litter. Keep an eye on the place. Report problems or fix things yourself.

6. Pull together a potluck. Throw a block party. Organize a singalong. Form a cooking club. Instigate a Friday night poker game. Or any other excuse for socializing with your neighbors.

7. Get out of the house. Spend some time on the stoop or porch, in the front yard, sidewalk or park — anywhere you can be better connected to the life of your community.

8. Create or designate a “town commons” for your neighborhood, where folks naturally want to gather — a park, playground, vacant lot, community center, coffee shop, or even a street corner.

9. Lobby for more public benches, water fountains, pedestrian plazas, parks, sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, and other crucial commons infrastructure.

10. Take matters into your own hands by adding a bench to your front yard or transforming a vacant lot into a playground or flower garden.

11. Conduct an inventory of local commons that people most love. Publicize your findings, and offer suggestions for preserving, celebrating and improving these community assets.

12. Organize your neighbors to prevent crime and to defuse the fear of crime, which often dampens a community’s spirit even more than crime itself.

13. Buy from local, independent businesses as much as you can.

14. Form a neighborhood exchange to share everything from lawn mowers to child care to vehicles.

15. Barter. Trade your skill in baking pies with someone who will fix your laptop.

16. Join campaigns opposing cutbacks in public assets like transit, schools, libraries, parks, social services, police and fire protection, arts programs, and more.

17. Write letters to the editor about the importance of community commons, post on local websites, call in to talk radio, tell your friends.

18. Roll up your sleeves to restore a creek, revitalize a block or spruce up an elderly neighbors’ house.

19. Have some fun while you’re doing all of this. The best reason for making great places is that it enlivens people’s lives.

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, writes and consults about how to make better communities. He will be speaking in Iowa City today at 3:30 in the Old Capitol and 5:30 in the Assembly Room of the Senior Center.