22 May 2012

Julian Dobson on the commons


You would also expect to find well maintained parks, relaxing open spaces and places where you can take children to play, go for a run or just sit in the sun. You would assume that a city which takes care of itself also takes care of its green spaces.

You might be surprised to find that most towns and cities have no obligation whatever to care for their green spaces. Local councils have no legal duty to preserve local ecosystems, keep parks and gardens open or preserve public access. No surprise then that green spaces are easy targets for spending cuts.

There is even fewer safeguards for green space that is in private hands. A study by the London Wildlife Trust in 2010 found that nearly a quarter of the capital's green spaces were private gardens - and while they are rich in wildlife and a vital ecological resource, more than one third of this garden space has already been paved or tarmacked over.

There is a better way, and it's one many of us can find on our doorsteps. The idea that publicly accessible green spaces are a shared benefit, to be enjoyed and cared for, is an ancient one. It is captured in the concept of the commons, areas of land on which local residents enjoyed particular rights and privileges.

The remaining historic commons in England and Wales are now covered by legislation, the Commons Act 2006, that protects public access and reaffirms the responsibilities of stewardship and maintenance. What is significant about the commons is not who owns the land - many are privately owned - but the continuing right of public enjoyment and duty of care. They provide a model for flexible partnerships of public, private and voluntary interests working for everyone's good.
report published this week to mark the 30th anniversary of the community and environmental charity Groundwork argues that this model of the commons should be applied to all publicly accessible parks and green spaces, enshrining in perpetuity their role and value as public goods, as well as the responsibilities of care that accompany public rights and privileges.
Wanstead Flats in east London, on the border between Newham and Redbridge, is typical of Britain's commons. On a Saturday you might find football teams playing in organised amateur leagues; kids learning to ride bikes or feeding ducks on the pond; dog walkers, runners, cyclists and model aircraft enthusiasts. In the past you might even find someone exercising their traditional right to graze cattle.

There are more than 7,000 commons in England, covering nearly 400,000 hectares - 3% of the country's land. Contrary to popular folklore, they are not everybody's property. Many are privately owned: Wanstead Flats, for example, is part of Epping Forest, owned by the City of London Corporation. 

Despite names that often suggest poor quality land of low value - Wormwood Scrubs, Roadside Waste, Nether Mire - these commons are hugely important. Nearly half England's common land lies within national parks, 30% within areas of outstanding natural beauty, and one fifth of them are within sites of special scientific interest. More than one tenth of England's scheduled ancient monuments are on common land.

The commons are vestiges of much larger areas that were historically open to all for foraging, grazing and recreation. Although these open spaces are no longer required for subsistence, they are recognised as public goods that provide benefits to all of us.
Far from being a historical anomaly, the commons have been a rallying point for civic pride and involvement and are seen as prized local assets. They have also been centres of protest and politics: Blackheath was the setting for Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt of 1381, while Putney Heath hosted the famousPutney Debates during the English Civil War in 1647.

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