There was a time when commoners had legal rights, and could take matters into their own hands when it came to dealing with trespassers. Centuries ago in England, people with common rights to land would “perambulate” it – what a wonderful word – to make sure no bossy lords had installed fences or gates. Laborers might carry “an axe, a mattock, and an iron crow…for the purpose of demolishing any building or fence which had been raised without permission,” says E.P. Thompson, the British scholar, in his book Customs In Common, quoting a contemporary source.
These evictions had an established legal basis. Coke’s Institutes (an abridged version) noted that “[I]f the Lord doth enclose any part, and leave not sufficient common…commoners may break down the whole inclosure.” Today we can only wish. But while we don’t have many legal rights to stand up to the enclosers, there still are ways to challenge the psychology of defeat, and help people remember what they have lost.
One example is an organization in Portland, Oregon called City Repair, which reclaims neighborhood intersections for common use. Local artists, with the permission of the city, paint brilliant murals on the intersections. People build cob structures, such as bulletin board kiosks and tea houses. Residents start to see the streets and in fact the whole city differently – as something that is theirs, rather than as a grid of obstacles and boundaries. In at least one neighborhood that was repaired in this manner, crime has dropped measurably.
Another example is a group in San Francisco called Rebar, which has turned commons reclamation into performance art. (My colleague David Bollier has written about Rebar here.) Last week, the group occupied metered parking spaces in downtown San Francisco and turned them into mini-parks. Here’s two short paragraphs from the S.F. Chronicle account:
Thursday afternoon, when the sun was high and winds were calm, [new public spaces] appeared briefly like a mirage: a 20-foot-long and 10-foot-wide patch of sod with two wooden benches and potted European hornbeam that filled a parking space in front of an empty lot.
And what that green spot lacked in design nuance it made up for in novelty – two hours later it was gone, wheeled away by bicyclists pedaling off with their portable landscape to transform another patch of asphalt.
Rebar volunteers carted their sod, trees and benches to five locations in all. Architecture and design firms picked up on the spirit of the day and contributed their own installations. Passers-by fed the meters. Mayor Gavin Newsome and a city supervisor (as council members in San Francisco are called) donated their parking spaces to the event.
There is an infectious quality to efforts like this – a realization of how hemmed in we are, a whiff of real freedom. When bike riders reclaim the streets on their monthly Critical Mass rides, a similar feeling is in the air (for riders and observers at least.) Private property once was a banner of freedom; automobiles once provided a mobile version of it But the wheel turns. Too much of a thing can turn it into its opposite.
“We want to get the public to rethink the way streets are used,” one Rebar member told the Chronicle reporter, John King. “Why not interpret a parking space as something that can be leased short term and used as a legitimate extension of open space?” Start by leasing it, and pretty soon people are asking who really owns that space to begin with.