1YT is a programme for agents of the kind of change that moves us as a society into being more sustainable, more equitable and more creative around new models of human living. One thread that we have been following this year is the history and the current potential of the Commons. From the Charter of the Forest that was published in 1225 as part of the re-issuing of Magna Carta as “The Great Charter of English Liberties”—a snapshot of the rights of commoners at that time—up to Elinor Ostrom’s work on the management of Common Pool Resources, to the human genome and the World Wide Web, the lived reality of the Commons is an activity, not a right. During our recent week in Bristol (5-10 April 2016) we visited many projects that are part of the new “green” story of the city. Bristol has just emerged from its year as Green Capital of Europe, and we were curious to find out what role these various nodes in the web of activity that is the emerging story for a resilient and sustainable Bristol were each playing.
At the beginning of the week we looked at the example of Bologna, where the Regulation passed in May 2014 sought to transform citizens from being dependents of the local state to actors driving change and a shared resource for the city. We discussed this question posed by David Bollier:
“What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life? That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens. Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.” [P2P website]
Could this be possible in Bristol? What would it take to make that shift from a city full of good projects to a narrative of citizens really participating in the regeneration of their home? This blog is a collective account of some of what we found, of the new questions that were generated by our shared enquiry, and the personal insights that emerged.
Day 2 by Julia Oertli
“What supports life and how can it be governed?” became the leading enquiry for our week in Bristol. We had decided to spend our third 1YT meet-up in Bristol because we’d heard from multiple sources that it was a highly fertile place for community action. By exploring a few nodes within the ecosystem of Bristol’s vibrant social scene, we were interested in finding out whether a city could see itself as a place where there is an urban Commons— that is, spaces which are owned and shaped by its citizens. What would such spaces look like? Who created them and why? How do people interact with them? Day two took us from the history of Bologna to sawing wood and planting celeriac at a community garden and clearing metal to make space for goats on a stormy hill.
Starting with a bit of theory, we learnt that the concept of the Commons is based on the idea that there are areas of life that are common to all and therefore managed collectively. A typical example from the past is pasture land, which herders would share to feed their livestock. But the Commons can also include things like water, air, physical infrastructure or intangible elements such as public health or the World Wide Web. There appears to be increasing interest in widening the meaning of the Commons in order to reclaim public space in the present day. People in Bristol, for example, seem to like the idea of a local currency or a commonly owned newspaper.
It’s important to understand the Commons first and foremost as a verb, commoning. Commons derive their existence from the way in which people interact with them and are therefore not merely a resource that can be managed or exploited, but are defined by a complex set of relationships, through which meaning is created.
We witnessed this when Lynne Davis took us around the new home of her project Street Goat at a big allotment site on top of Stibbs Hill. Lynn used to squat on a farm near Bristol, where she built beautiful relationships with the farm animals. When she moved to the city, she found herself increasingly wondering why animals are kept on separate pasture sites, tucked away from humans. To bring animals back into people’s daily lives Lynn founded Street Goat, a community project that envisages the communal ownership and care of a few goats on sites that would otherwise be unused. We chatted to Lynn about her vision whilst helping to clear the land of rubbish that had sat there for years. She explained that the allotments were an attractive site for private developers, and Street Goat’s presence was in fact key in giving the site new meaning and providing Bristol City Council with a compelling reason to keep it within communal ownership and use.
Throughout the week, we saw this pattern of commoning to prevent the privatization of land and structures replicated across the city— from derelict buildings to pubs, factories, historic cranes by the harbour and the local energy grid. It left us wondering, what is it about this place that enables all of this peaceful communal activism to take place? We couldn’t say we got close to an answer, but perhaps we got a glimpse of it. As one local poet we met along the way put it: “Many Bristolians share a gentle anarchism, which allows them to make great things happen without waiting around for someone to give them permission to do so.”
Day 3 by Vivian Winterhoff
Ciaran Mundy, CEO of the Bristol £ (B£), joined us at Roll for the Soul. First off, a few observations and facts about the B£:
Even though it operates like a local currency, because every B£ note has an expiry date (a new set of notes is issued every 3 years), the B£ is in effect a voucher scheme. In fact, the B£ is a Community Interest Company, which is why Ciaran is a CEO (I had wondered why a CEO was running a local currency!). 1.5m B£ have been printed and “bought” at a rate of 1GBP to 1B£ since its first “injection” into the system in late 2012. Now, approximately 850 businesses in Bristol accept the B£, and the majority of these are registered for the “text to pay” system, making it easier to use the B£. You can hold a current account in B£ with the local credit union and pay just about every household bill, including council tax, (and excepting water) in B£. We bought some B£s at the beginning of our stay in Bristol and were able to use them just about everywhere we went—even the local buses accept B£s! The only thing we struggled with was getting B£ back in change.
With a background in soil ecology and his previous experience working in the private sector, Ciaran shared some of his realisations about the parallels between ecology and economy. For one thing, ecology and economy both deal with flows of resources. Money is, in these terms, equivalent to a right to call on these resources. This is one reason why encouraging money to circulate in the local economy is so important; it localises rights to call on resources, giving citizens the choice to decide on what resources are used and how these resources are used—a direct vote as they decide where and how to spend their money. [We did have a debate later in the evening about the use of the word “resources” and how this abstracts the relationship between people (=human resources) and other living beings and systems (= e.g. chickens and soils). Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to raise this with Ciaran, as we ran out of time.].
Secondly, businesses go through natural cycles of birth and death. Many existing, “old economy” businesses would “die” if local people had more of a say in what businesses run in their communities. This would make space for new, independent and local businesses to take their place. Thus, what is needed in the economy is not absolute growth, but change—a change in the types of businesses operating in the economy: more of the “old economy” business dying, making space for more local and hopefully “green” business to grow. This coincides with the thinking of academics like Prof Tim Kasser (The High Price of Materialism), who argue for a change in practices (e.g. replacing a car with a bicycle) rather than simply a change in products (replacing a petrol car with an electronic car) to shift the current economic and social system. One of the next steps for the Bristol £ is to support this change by enabling local, medium-sized businesses to access interest-free mutual credit between local businesses. Ciaran also shared with us his vision of local currencies operating regionally and then inter-regionally, sharing knowledge, skills and technology in collaborative partnerships.
To me, the most important thing about the B£ is that using and/or accepting it communicates what values you support: as it affects the relationships between the different local actors in the system in a positive way. You actually stand for strengthening local relationships, and intrinsic values such as social justice, community and collaboration as opposed to more materialistic, extrinsic values which still tend to dominate our current economic and social systems.
Day Four by Alex Froede
In the morning we met with Peter Lipman who is the Policy Director at Sustrans and Chair of Trustees at the Transition Network. He shared with us personal learnings from his life working in various positions on issues around environmental policy. Amongst many other insightful thoughts, he reminded us of the importance to reflect on whether what you do is useful and proportionate to what is needed. He shared his thinking on organisational issues and pointed to the fact that from a certain size organisations spend a lot of time with internal processes. Together with Peter we reflected on how bottom-up and top-down change making could be linked in a place-specific manner.
Then we went to Hamilton House and met with co-founder Jamie Pike. He gave us a tour around this large set of Buildings in the centre of Stokes Croft which sees itself as “a space in which people collectively live, work, play and innovate to create a better world for each other, our community and the environment.” The house offers meeting rooms, ateliers and offices, therapy rooms and also runs a popular restaurant and has developed into a hub of innovation and creative live in Bristol. It was fascinating to hear about Jamie’s personal story from working as a drama therapist to becoming a crucial person in setting up Hamilton House. He is convinced that people like to be given permission to follow what they feel called to do and should be allowed to play. He sees the job of Hamilton House as holding space for part of the creative community in Bristol. He reminded us that we should try not to feel responsible for everything as it might put us in a situation of powerlessness that can lead to aggression.
We then met with Alon Aviram from Bristol Cable, an independent newspaper in Bristol. Bristol Cable is a cooperative seeking to provide high-quality investigative journalism to Bristol with place-specific information. He told us how the newspaper got set up and how it tries to link international to local issues. We discussed issues of inclusiveness (e.g. in terms of ethnic minorities) and the role of investigative journalism in our world in order to describe the state of the world and provide information for forming opinion.
On the last morning (Day Six) we had a group conversation about what we had learned. Most of us felt most impacted by the presence of the change-makers we had spoken with, almost more than what they were doing. Students said “I was struck by the power that one person or a group have if they hold a strong vision and follow through”; “I’m going for action in my project now, not waiting til it is perfect: it’s very inspiring to see people just doing”; “I valued the embodied experience of change that I gained from visiting people’s projects”; “It really resonated with me when Jamie at Hamilton House said ‘Don’t take on too much as you can’t control what is going to happen. Open a space, keep it open for others to come in, trust’”. “People feel responsible for this city, what does it really mean for people to live here?”; “This visit has provoked a lot of questions in me about my role in my city of Bonn”.
We are very grateful to everyone who met with us, including those who are not mentioned in this blog post as there is no room: Trinity Community Garden , Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Bristol Soup , and Happy City.
Contributors: Julia Oertli, Vivian Winterhoff, Alex Froede and Isabel Carlisle