Returning from abroad, we gain perspective on home—appreciating what we have and assessing what we lack. After visiting Barcelona to attend an international conference hosted by the en comύ (in common, Catalan) platform that has taken over the city’s governance, I see that Burlington is far behind the international movement to democratize the use of commons. Commons are spaces and resources that belong to the residents of a neighborhood or municipality and may be defined as something essential, like water, or as spaces and resources traditionally used by the people, such as parks and public buildings. In rural areas, we have traditions like the Italian legnatico, whereby residents are entitled to take wood from the forest for personal use, or the right to pasture animals on common land, but throughout the world today, privatization threatens the civic use and enjoyment of common resources. In America, property rights are king, which produces an aggressively self-righteous attitude: “I can do whatever I like on my property. Neighbors, environment, future inhabitants be damned”. But, as Bea Bookchin has so wisely noted, when developers buy a property in our thriving city, its value comes from the fact that we, the people, have contributed our social and creative capital to the surrounding areas. We make the property valuable and a developer who thinks he can do whatever he damn well pleases is not only unethical but unwise, for projects that are not in harmony with the desires and natural tendencies of the populace are doomed to failure. Leaving aside, however, these properties that “belong” to private speculators, let us keep in mind the natural resources, parks, and buildings that are technically owned by Burlington residents: Memorial Auditorium, City Hall Park, much of the waterfront, the Moran Plant, the kiosk on College and Church, the Taft School (currently rented to UVM), 339 Pine Street, and more. Why is Burlington still in thrall to public private partnerships, while cities around the world are enthusiastically discovering the common wealth to be gained from returning common spaces into the hands of the residents?
Innovative municipalities are reversing the selling-off of public resources to private entities by facilitating the transfer of spaces in temporary leases to community groups, providing legal and practical management aids (licensing, insurance, etc.). These common spaces are seen by visionary Municipalists as “democracy labs,” “little spaces of democracy,” “incubators of hope, openness, creativity” which embody a leap from the particular to the universal. They challenge the logic of corporate, capitalist fatalism, offering a vision of social and ecological sustainability to replace that of individual immediate profit. “We were losing pieces of the city,” said Giuseppi Miciarrelli of Naples’ Massa Critica. In Naples the people fought for three years to get the city to invent a new legal tool, to pass 5 resolutions, and to cede 7 spaces to community groups, and Naples became the first city in Italy to establish a Department of the Commons, dedicated to protecting the right of residents to determine the use of publicly-owned resources and to protect these often-neglected spaces from the threat of privatization. In Barcelona, the en comύ government has a Commons Collaborative Economy Plan which offers publicly-owned lots through public competition to community groups. They are changing the stance of public servants from antagonism in the face of the public’s “demands,” maintaining that there is a social value in collaborative practices and self-organization. In Grenoble, France, the city council is working to facilitate citizen initiatives, seeing the council as only one partner in the administration of fundamentally publicly-owned resources.
In cities across the world, people are fighting against the privatization of water (In Naples and Grenoble they have banned it; in Turkey, water, which is very scarce, has been commercialized; in Jackson, Mississippi, where water revenue makes up about 40% of the city income, there is a dire threat of private ownership hi-jacking not only this necessary resource, but also the steady public income it has long provided). And what about the air? What about our head space? In Vermont, where billboards are technically banned, we have seen a steady encroachment of advertising that subtly sidesteps the no-billboard laws: a whole wall of the L.L. Bean building; the sides of buses; the light projection-ads on buildings and the pedestrian mall; the advertising on those ugly, ugly garbage bins; the swathing of the city with ads during the marathon; the banners across Church Street reminding us to ski Stowe; and the advertisements for the city itself which compromise City Hall Park. Once again, we can learn from other cities. In São Paulo, Brazil, they implemented a Clean City Law, deeming advertising “visual pollution” and removing 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefront signs. Grenoble, France became the first city in Europe to ban commercial street advertisement, “freeing public space…from advertising to develop areas of public expression”. All humans everywhere deserve access to water, air, the power to co-create their cities, and the freedom to think their own thoughts without encroachment from advertising. In common with our fellow humans throughout the world, we reject the financialization of life and insist on the right to re-imagine our commons together.