Online discussion: Ownership

etched tokens
Common Ground: final tokens etched in brass

The second of our monthly discussions for academic network members focused on the theme of Ownership. We wanted to consider: How can we make without owning? What practices undermine or collectivise ownership?

As last month, we set three short readings to feed the discussion, including two posts from this blog:

Justine Boussard and Alice McLean joined us to talk about their collaborative initiative, Common Ground. The first Common Ground project, in 2015, focused on commemorating the successful fight to prevent the enclosure of Peckham Rye Common. The second instalment – Justine and Alice’s commission for We Are Commoners! – focuses on a much more recent battle, that for the Walsall Road allotments in Birmingham, which were threatened with redevelopment.

One of the threads of conversation dwelled on the distinctiveness of allotments, as community resources which were created (as a sort of consolation prize) when common land was being enclosed – and as spaces which are not technically commons, but in which commoning practices seem to happen easily. People ‘rub up’ as they work alongside one another, giving rise to informal commoning practices such as sharing seeds and tools. In previous network conversations we’ve spoken about ‘hidden commons’ – examples that we could characterise as commoning, although the people involved probably wouldn’t use this terminology – and the allotments would probably fall into this category.

Both this example, and the cemetery described by Naomi Millner in her blog post, provide useful examples of commoning taking place on either public or privately owned land. This feeds into the conversations we’ve been having about temporary and mobile commons, and really emphasises the difference between commons as a noun and commoning as a verb. Justine observed that this could be seen as a parallel of the distinction that Daniel Charny makes between design and designing – with designing describing an inclusive and participatory process or way of thinking. 

Another strand of conversation focused on the need to continually remake or reclaim a commons: there needs to be a collective effort to common again and again. While there might be moments of particular tension, such as those that Common Ground highlight in their projects, a commons can never be seen as fully settled. This led us to think about the endurance of commons over the long term and the notion of stewardship, as an alternative to ownership.

People on a video call holding fruit and vegetables
Common Ground: online token design workshop with plotholders
Lisa Falaschi
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