The strategy of the commons

Who has the right to the land and its space? Even the countryside can feel differently depending on how it is managed. In Germany and many other countries in Europe you can walk across other people’s land without fearing that they might shoot you. In England it’s romantically called ‘the right to roam’ . If you want to enjoy yourself in Germany, you can only walk on other people’s property (Betretungsrecht) to enjoy nature, but in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Scotland you can even camp (Jedermannsrecht).

I noticed this when riding around on a bicycle in Australia that outside of cities all farms have fences around them and so most of the time the land available to roam just consists of road reserves and the occasional state forest that doesn’t have a fence. But not all is great with public right of ways and the great freedom of the outdoors in England. Councils still have maintenance responsibility and with shrinking budgets clearing all the paths seems to be an issue. This article states that roughly one tenth of the rambler’s paths are difficult to access.

In Australia

Victoria has a similar problem with maintenance. Road reserves and recreation reserves are maintained by councils who are suffering form rate-capping and so they are trying to minimise their maintenance burden. In the USA (where, as everyone knows, everything is better…) it’s much more common that certain housing estates have a kind of body corporate that maintains the road reserves and vegetation, resulting in much nicer looking roads.

It’s also interesting to compare what kind of vegetation will be chosen purely from a maintenance perspective. Landscape architects almost exclusively select from a palette of hardy, slow growing, easy to maintain species that won’t cause much trouble but also contribute very little to the general amenity like shade, interest or fruit.
Say we want to surround ourselves with great outdoor areas that everyone can access in the city, who could maintain them?

  1. The people who live closest to them
  2. Council employees
  3. Landscapers hired by a body corporate kind of governance structure
  4. Goats …  but that would be a short-lived landscape

Let’s go through that together.

The people who live closest to them

This is the communist ideal. Of course if everyone has a job and not a basic income, the actual people won’t have time to do it. The other problem is the understandable lack of dedication if the place is open to being vandalised and the fruits (literally) of their labour are accessible by the public. So most likely they would pay someone to do it and organise it in a non-corporate way. People do maintain public land sometimes, like in the vegetable gardens I encountered next to the ring road M80 in Melbourne. Here, people planted fruit trees and gardens and I even saw a flock of chickens walking around. This is because there is no road (only a bike path behind the noise wall and their properties back onto it, so it feels private and protected, even though it is public.

Even better for this sort of thing are housing clusters where 8 to 12 houses are arranged around a common green area. In Finland this is a popular way to live. This cluster creates a bit more privacy and feeling of belonging among the neighbours. Essential is, that the locals organise and own the common land so that they can make the decisions on how to use and present the space. It should still be accessible to the public though.

Council employees

This is how it’s mostly done in Australia and it’s fair to say that the maintenance of public places just covers the essentials. There is a lot of vandalism because of lack of feeling of ownership and little customisation. People complain to council if something isn’t to their liking and council needs to send someone to fix it up or threaten fines. Not a very positive system. Also, there aren’t enough people working at councils to really get into each space and make it beautiful. Which makes public land maintained by council rather stale and not unique.

Landscapers hired by body corporates

This is the non-utopian version of the self-governance. Neighbours pay fees that are used to maintain the landscape. This can lead to great landscapes, which are edible and water-sensitive if done right. But also politicking and bickering at body corporate level are a common occurrence.


Yeah nah, maybe not a good idea.

Semi-private, well maintained common land can be a great asset for a community, especially if houses have a large frontage to the green space. There is a limited radius in which we interact with our neighbours, you wouldn’t walk a block to talk to a neighbour, so having a few neighbours nearby in a cluster is a great idea to foster community and have a common space where children can play and adults can garden. I want to see more housing clusters to find out how they work.