Georgetown University Celebrates & Highlights Recent Commons Scholarship

On October 5-6, 2018, scholars and practitioners from around the globe involved in cutting-edge research and projects were invited to participate in an unprecedented celebration of Commons Scholarship at Georgetown’s Law Center in Washington DC.  This two-day event was organized by LabGov co-founder Sheila Foster (Professor, Georgetown Law Center/ McCourt School), Brigham Daniels (Professor, BYU Law), and Chrystie Flournoy Swiney (JD/ PhD (ABD))- with the support of the International Association for the Study of the Commons.  The conference coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 article on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which spawned a body of eclectic scholarship, largely spearheaded by Nobel Prize Award winner and political economist Elinor Ostrom who challenged Hardin’s claim that shared resources must be privatized or heavily regulated by governmental actors in order to prevent their depletion or decay.

In the 21st century, the concept of the “commons” has been expanded and reconceptualized in a variety of creative new ways to include many kinds of shared resources, beyond just pastoral land, which was the focus of Hardin’s article.  Agriculture, water sources, the global atmosphere, urban infrastructure, technology, and knowledge sharing are just of few of the many examples. Commons scholarship today focuses less on the tragedies that result from shared resources and more on the successful and alternative ways in which resource users, and others, come together to collaboratively govern and maintain a shared resource. As a result, a myriad of seemingly unrelated themes were explored at Georgetown’s “Celebrating Commons Scholarship” conference — economic inequality, stewardship, housing, development and gentrification, and the environment, among others—yet, all were explored through the lens of commons theory.

This vibrant conference included nearly 80 participants from more than 20 different nations presenting papers on a wide variety of interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary topics.  Case studies were presented from Barbados, Brazil, Indonesia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Italy, Poland, Israel, Hawaii, and beyond, and topics ranged from “Indigenous Perspectives in the Commons,” to “Reconceiving the Commons,” to “The New Commons: Outer Space, Cyberspace, and Beyond.”  Various other panelists applied the Commons Framework to water, cities, the environment, technology, biodiversity, and the media. The opening plenary featured three leading commons scholars–Professors Foster, Daniels, and Shi-Ling Hsu (Florida State University College of Law)–who each discussed recent innovations in commons theory.

Professor Foster described how she is applying the theory of the commons to her work on cities, a new area of commons research which she has further developed with LabGov co-founder Christian Iaione. “I argued in my early work that the same tragic tale can be told about cities, and different kinds of resources in cities,” she said. “Urban streets, parks, vacant land can mimic the tragedy of the commons that result from the self-interested actions of others…cities and their resources can become heavily congested, and resources strained and eventually diminished.”  Yet, if there’s a “tragedy of the commons” underway in urban contexts, Foster points out, there are also examples of “comedies,” where adding more people to resources results in more positive outcomes. “We share, with recent work on the commons in the urban environment, a desire to push back on the standard understanding of the commons as a need to avert the tragedy…in a desire to identify alternative economic visions that have the potential to address historic levels of inequality and stratification, particularly in cities.” However, there are problems with importing the theory of the commons into cities, Professor Foster notes: “To state the obvious, many kinds of urban resources, the infrastructure of the built environment, are quite different from traditional commons resources” such as depletable resources like forests and lakes.  Cities are heavily regulated, involve many private actors, and raise issues of distribution and inequality not seen elsewhere in such extreme degrees.

Adding to the richness and diversity of this conference was a “Practitioner’s Workshop” offered on the second day, led by Amanda Huron, a professor at The University of the District of Columbia and author of Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., and Paula Segal, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Community Development Project.  This workshop specifically focused on Community Land Trusts (CLTs), a legal tool increasingly used as a way to solve the affordable housing crisis in cities throughout the globe.  Following three presentations by practitioners working on CLTs in New York City, Baltimore, and Rio de Janeiro, an interactive, hands-on CLT governance exercise was conducted involving participants in the creation and discussion of the various ways in which CLTs can be governed and structured.

This conference was meant to be a launching pad for future research and collaboration among commons scholars and practitioners.  Foster and Swiney, both at Georgetown, hope to cultivate a space for future collaborative efforts through LabGov Georgetown, which was launched in the fall of 2018 and hopes to be a place where innovative new scholarship on the commons can be featured and further celebrated.

by Chrystie Flournoy Swiney & Sheila Foster, Georgetown Law Center