Maintenance of the commons

Who has the right to the land and its space? Spaces can feel different depending on how they are managed.


Germany and many other countries in Europe allow you to walk across other people’s land without fear of getting shot. It’s romantically called ‘the right to roam ’ in England.

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). Outside of cities in Australia all farms have fences. The land available to roam just consists of road reserves and the occasional state forest without 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. 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.

Victoria has a similar problem with maintenance. Road reserves and recreation reserves are maintained by councils who are suffering from rate-capping. They try to minimise their maintenance burden. In the USA certain housing estates have a body corporate, which maintains the road reserves and vegetation. This results in much nicer looking roads.

We want to surround ourselves with great outdoor areas that everyone can access. 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

Let’s go through that together!

The people who live closest to them

This is the communist ideal. If everyone has a job and no basic income, the actual people won’t have time to do it.

The other problem is the understandable lack of dedication. 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 M80 in Melbourne. Here, people planted fruit trees and gardens and I even saw a flock of chickens walking around. There is no road (only a bike path behind the noise wall) and their properties back onto it. 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 among the neighbours. Essential is that the locals organise and own the common land. Then 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. The maintenance of public places just covers the essentials. There is a lot of vandalism. Probably due to a lack of feeling of ownership and little room to customise. People complain to council if something isn’t to their liking. Then the council needs to send someone to fix it up or threaten fines. It’s 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.

It’s also interesting to see 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. These won’t cause much trouble. They also contribute very little to the general amenity like shade, interest or fruit.

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.


Goat tree by plenty.r. on flickr

Yeah nah, maybe not a good idea.

Common land

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. To have 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.

Leave a comment