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.