The Gabriola Commons Makes History

by: EJ on 02/07/2011
Posted in: Sustainable Living

Something amazing has just happened. For the first time ever in Canada, perhaps in North America, property can be owned by a community – not just by a government, a corporation, a private individual or even a group of specific individuals. The Gabriola Commons has created an agreement which allows a piece of land to be owned by all of us, as the people who are residents of Gabriola Island. Some First Nations also own their land as a community – but they have quasi-governmental status in their land ownership. Gabriola owns The Commons despite not having municipal status - and the British Columbia government has officially approved the notion. It is a first, as far as we know. It is an historic moment – a clear recognition that a community can own acreage, set up its own bylaws and define other conditions needed for the functioning of an area dedicated to the common good.

The idea of a commons is an ancient one, based on the English notion of a village commons. Commons in England were brought to an end by the Enclosure Act. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin has been required reading for many economic and environmental students for years. The basic premise is that an individual will always act to maximize their own personal benefit without regard to the common good. The Gabriola Commons challenges this fundamental belief and is working to forge legal and social structures to this end.

The Gabriola Commons is more than a piece of property. It is also a grassroots community organization, managed by volunteers, that exists to nourish the social fabric of the community; to ensure the ecological sustainability of the land and assets; to remain in perpetuity as a public trust for future generations; to provide ongoing community service; and to demonstrate democratic and equitable stewardship.

For the past four years, the Commons Coordinating Council has worked towards creating a site-specific zone on which the principle uses will be commons agricultural, the growing and processing of crops and livestock; and commons institutional, the provision of non-profit special purpose services.

The bylaw also allows a number of accessory uses, or operations in the service of the agricultural and institutional uses. These include single family residential; accessory commercial; the food depot that is already on the lot; public assembly; and office and storage.

The Commons bylaws obtained the needed Government approval and the Local Trust Committee adopted the bylaws on January 27. Bob Andrews, member of the Commons Coordinating Council said, “Lots of the Gulf Islands and other places in BC are very excited, now we have set the precedent.” It was a long complex process that started with creating the vision of the Commons, finding the correct language to make it legally sound and incorporating the various activities appropriate to a commons. The Commons is both for producing food for the community and for increasing the quality of our collective life here, its creativity, artistic expression, social interaction.

Doug McKnight, from the Commons Communication team says, "Admittedly for most of us, life on Gabriola is already very good, but the function of The Commons is to add to that, as well as to make available more local, organic produce. Making historic change happen isn’t something many of us get to do. But those people who brought about the acceptance of the Commons as a legal entity have done it – and we Gabriolans can be proud of our one small step toward a new notion, a legal, de facto affirmation of the value of the commons."

Curious to know what a commons looks like in real life? The Commons blog has great photos of life at The Gabriola Commons. Many of the New Society staff volunteer and participate at The Commons.

Do you have a commons in your neighbourhood? What have your experiences been working in or towards developing a commons?


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