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April 19, 2014

Commons Comes to Town

OTC's recent visit to Keene State College stirs discussion about what we share and how we share it

Students at Keene State College. (Photo by Celt.Keene under a Creative Commons license.)

Bring On The Commons to Your Campus or Community

People are yearning for a world that is more collaborative, sustainable, equitable and enjoyable. This is especially true for young people, and over the past three years On the Commons (OTC) has worked with professors on college campuses to raise student awareness of the opportunities offered by the commons. We are now seeking campuses to visit for the 2014-2015 school year and communities to visit any time of year.

Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and editor of OTC's Commons magazine, specializes in introducing the ideas and promises of the commons to students, faculty and communities. He and other OTC leadership are also available vailable for public talks, conferences, solutions labs, and other engagements focusing on the promise of the commons to create a more equitable, sustainable, and safe world.

Traveling to New Hampshire last week to talk at Keene State College, I had no idea what to expect. Although I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Vermont and Maine, New Hampshire stands out for its libertarian leanings-- no state income tax, no state sales tax, license plates proclaiming “Live Free or Die”.

I was not sure how receptive audiences would be to my celebration of the commons and public spaces. I wondered if a libertarian aversion to land-use laws would mean the town was a stretch of strip malls and the state’s tight-fisted fiscal policies would mean the college was a cluster of Quonset huts left over from World War II parked in a field behind a motel out by the highway. Or would the old-fashioned Yankee common sense embodied in New England town meetings and the embrace of historical preservation as an efficient use of resources prevail in shaping the community.

Happily, I can report that Keene is an attractive town with a Main Street bustling with streetlife and independent businesses. It reminded me of Bedford Falls in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. The Keene State campus, a handsomely outfitted in red brick, is a short stroll from downtown and features a pedestrianized street that serves as a classic commons--a place students naturally gather to see and be seen.

After speaking in a public lecture, three classes and to assorted groups of students, faculty and staff, I can vouch that there is considerable interest in the commons as a possible source of solutions for climate change, economic inequity, social fragmentation and the skyrocketing cost of tuition-- the latter a deeply felt issue at a school where many students are the first generation to attend college.

The reason for my invitation to campus was the follow up on discussions about a new comprehensive plan for the campus, where the ideas of the commons had been raised as a way to enrich the educational experience for all students. I was particularly excited that questions and comments following my public presentation at the student union further focused on connecting the dots between strong public places and economic opportunities for all. We discussed at length new possibilities, drawing on commons principles, for making sure that neighborhood revitalization does not automatically trigger gentrification. A question about the most effective methods of governing shared resources to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” evolved into a discussion of Nobel Economics Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s belief “polycentricity”-- overlapping management methods that might range from legal restrictions to social customs to watchful neighbors--offers the best protection.

New Hampshire-- or at least Keene--seems as open to a commons way of life as any other community or campus I’ve visited across the country. On my way home at the Manchester airport, I noticed a series of colorful posters trying to put a more positive spin on the state’s famous motto-- Live Free and Enjoy, Live Free and Experience. Perhaps someday soon visitors will also see Live Free and Share.