The Commons

A Shared Global History and Future

Geography 400

Elsa Noterman, noterman[at]


In the face of climate and economic crises that threaten communities around the world, there is a growing concern about how to sustainably manage ‘the commons’ – or shared resources – such as water, land, and knowledge. There has thus been a recent resurgence of interest among scholars, practitioners, and some policymakers in how historic and contemporary communities maintain local and global commons. In the context of ongoing and rapid enclosure of the commons by the state and the market, for some, the recognition and expansion of multiple iterations of the commons and commoning – or the ongoing activity involved in managing a shared resource – offer the possibility of formulating a more equitable and diverse vision of socio-economic life.

This course will consider the historical roots and contemporary iterations of the commons, and explore the multiple and interconnecting ways that people around the world collectively manage, reclaim, and defend these commons outside the public-private property dichotomy. As a geography course, it will explore the various ways that these forms of commoning are producing – and produced by – socio-spatial relations. In other words, it will consider how commoning is influenced by particular relationships to space and society, and in turn, how through commoning people are producing (new and/or existing) social and spatial relationships. While examining commons that are deemed to be “global” and “local,” the course will reconsider this scalar binary and explore the interconnectedness of various forms of commoning. Throughout the course, drawing on texts and resources from several disciplines – and by undertaking their own research projects – students will analyze the commons and commoning from both a conceptual and empirical perspective.

Utilizing a number of student-led learning approaches, this course will allow students to take an active role in guiding weekly discussions and to contribute to an online knowledge commons through their own research projects.

One of four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta (1215), in the collection of the British Library.

Overarching Learning Objectives

There are two categories of learning objectives for this course: theoretical training and research skills (conducting a qualitative research project and writing a research paper). Students will:

Theoretical training

  • Describe the concept of “the commons”
  • Understand the history of the commons in multiple contexts
  • Comprehend historic and contemporary enclosures of the commons
  • Analyze historic and contemporary debates over the management of the commons
  • Evaluate efforts to defend and reclaim the commons

Research skills

  • Examine primary texts and utilize them to make arguments
  • Identify and investigate commons in their own communities – how and why people participate in the management of these commons
  • Write a research paper based on their fieldwork (including interviews and/or archival work)


In this course students will contribute to an online “knowledge commons” through their research projects. In examining a local contemporary or historical commons, students will add to a website which will showcase case studies of the commons. Active participation in class discussions and activities is also expected, and students will sign up (as individuals or small groups) to act as discussion leader(s) for one week. There will be time in each class for discussion of, and other forms of engagement with, the readings and general themes of the course. Thus, in addition to assignments related to the research project, students will be responsible for short weekly assignments associated with the readings.

Reading Responses 20%

For the weeks that students have assigned readings, they will be asked to write a reading response, which will be due 24 hours before class begins. These 250-word responses should address the course themes in relation to the readings, raise questions about the readings, and/or draw connections between the week’s readings. These responses will help direct the class discussion and allow for clarification of common questions.

Class Discussion Leader 10%

Students will sign up to lead class discussion (individually or in small groups) for one week of the semester. As discussion leaders, students will offer a review of the weekly readings and will guide class discussion by identifying several questions or themes related to the readings. There is some flexibility in the format of class discussions – please come to office hours to discussion options.

Research Project – Short Assignments 35%

The research project for this course will consist of students identifying, researching, and analyzing a local “commons” in their community – either historical or contemporary. This can include a material commons – such as a community garden project, free library or housing cooperative – or an “immaterial” commons, such as a knowledge or digital commons. Lines of inquiry should include: who the commoners are, how they use and manage the shared resource, what issues arise in the management of the resource, if there is a threat of enclosure, how non-commoners interact with the space, etc. In addition to a final research paper, students will have several short assignments that will contribute to the development of their research projects. Breaking up the stages of the research will provide students the opportunity to receive regular feedback on their projects.

Research Topic Proposal

Write a one-paragraph proposal about the “commons” you would like to examine for your research project. This should include a brief description of the commons. During the first couple of weeks of class we will spend some time in class brainstorming examples of local commons. If you need addition ideas or have questions about potential projects, come to office hours.

Outline/Concept Map of Research Project

Produce a one-page outline/concept map of your research project, including a brief introduction to your case study as well as your research objectives, methods, and a timeline for your project.

Annotated bibliography

Compile an annotated bibliography of ten secondary sources – articles, books or other resources – you plan to draw on for your research paper. For each resource, include one or two sentences explaining how this will add to your paper.

Presentation of research

Give a presentation in class to summarize your project to your classmates. This should be a 10-minute presentation, including research methodology, related literature and findings. The format of this presentation is flexible but should include some form of visual. Students will provide constructive feedback on the presentations and a final version of this presentation will put online as part of the class’ contribution a knowledge commons.

Final Research Paper 35%

Student will be responsible for producing a 10- to 15-page research paper by the end of the semester. The shorter assignments will help students prepare for this paper. A version of this paper will be included on a class website, therein contributing to the knowledge commons.

Rough Draft of Research Paper

A rough draft of the final research paper will be due two weeks before the last class. This will offer an opportunity for feedback before the final draft is due.

Final Draft of Research Paper

A final draft of the research paper will be due a week after the last day of class.


There is no need to purchase books for this course – the books used will be put on reserve at the library. Many of the readings are available online and others will be scanned in as PDFs. The listed supplementary readings are optional for undergraduate students and required for graduate students taking the course.

Additional online resources, a list of key words and definitions, and a list of examples of commons from around the globe are also included at the end of this syllabus.


Week 1: Introduction to the course

For the first week there will be no readings. In class we will review the syllabus and objectives for the course. To begin thinking about the commons, we will also watch and discuss two short videos. The first, produced by Knopp and Piller, is an animated film that briefly introduces the concept of the commons and its multiple iterations. The second film examines the concept of the commons as a basis for building a more just society.

The Commons (2010): video produced by Christoph Knopp and Burkhard Piller and released by the Commons Strategy Group.

The Commons (2009): a video by Laura Hanna, Gavin Browning, Dana Schechter and Molly Schwartz.

Week 2: What are the commons?

The readings for this week provide an overview of the commons as a critical global concept and a subject of interdisciplinary scholarship. Bollier explores the emerging discourse of the commons – how and why scholars and practitioners are examining the commons. In their article, Holder and Flessas trace the diversity of the scholarship on the commons and consider how best to approach researching the commons. Finally, Nonini considers the importance of the commons as a particularly “global idea,” where the commons have emerged as sites of contestation around the world.

Required Readings:

David Bollier (2007) The Growth of the Commons Paradigm. In: Hess C. & E. Ostrom (eds.) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons from Theory to Practice.  Cambridge: MIT Press. Pp. 27-40.

Jane Holder and Tatiana Flessas (2008) Emerging commons. Social & Legal Studies 17(3): 299–310.

Donald Nonini (2007) Introduction: The global idea of ‘the commons.’ In: The Global Idea of ‘the Commons.’ New York: Berghahn Books. Pp. 1-25.

Supplemental Readings:

David Bollier (2007) A New Politics of the Commons. Renewal Magazine 1-8.

Jonathan Rowe J (2008) The parallel economy of the commons. In: The Worldwatch Institute, ed., State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy [online]. New York: WW Norton, 138-150. [Accessed 10 January 2013.]  Available from:

Week 3: The Charters of Liberties: Historical struggle for commons & civil liberties

Class this week connects the development of political, legal and economic rights with the historical struggle over the commons. Through the readings, class discussion and activities (where students will read and analyze elements of The Charters of Liberties), students will gain a historical framework for understanding the concept of the commons and the opportunity to practice analyzing primary texts. Assignment Due: Research Project Proposal.

Required Readings:

Peter Linebaugh (2008) The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Oakland: University of California Press.

  • Chapter 1: “Introduction” (pp. 1-20)
  • Chapter 2: “Two Charters” (pp. 21-45)

Kathryn Walbert (2004) Reading primary sources: An introduction for students. Learn NC. Accessible online at:

Supplementary Readings:

“Destroying the Commons: How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta,” a 2012 speech by Noam Chomsky at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Week 4: The Commons, Enclosure, and the Emergence of Capitalism

Following from the previous week, the readings this week continue to explore the history of the commons – specifically the process of their enclosure. These readings examine this socio-spatial historic process in early modern Britain (Blomley), and connect the enclosures to the emergence of global capitalism through the discursive history of the commons (Maddison). Finally, to have students begin to think about research methods for their projects, the Winchester piece outlines qualitative methods typically used in human geography, and situates these methods within the discipline.

Required Readings:

Nicholas Blomley (2007) Making of private property: enclosure, common right and the work of hedges. Rural History 18(1): 1-21.

Ben Maddison (2010) Radical commons discourse and the challenges of colonialism. Radical History Review 108: 29-48.

Hilary P.M. Winchester (2000) Qualitative research and its place in human geography. In: Hay, I. (ed.) Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp.1-22.

Supplementary Readings:

Simon Fairlie (2009) A short history of enclosure in Britain. The Land 7 (Summer).

Week 5: The “Tragedy of the Commons” Debate

Garrett Hardin’s article, “The tragedy of the commons,” provoked a lot of debate when it was published in 1968 – and continues to loom large in discussions about the commons and the ability of communities to collectively share and manage resources outside the market and state. These readings include the (in)famous article, Hardin’s follow-up piece and some of the responses to the argument put forward by Hardin – most notably by Elinor Ostrom, who received a Noble Prize for her work on the governance of the commons. Michael Goldman offers an important critique not only of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ but also of some commons scholars who, he argues, share some of Hardin’s underlying assumptions. Assignment Due: Research Project Outline/Concept Map.

Noterman_image_SheepRequired Readings:

Garrett Hardin (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science 162(3859): 1243-1248.

Garrett Hardin (1994) The tragedy of the unmanaged commons. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9(5): 199.

Elinor Ostrom (1990) Reflections on the Commons. In: Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 1-28.

Michael Goldman (1997) ‘Customs in common’: the epistemic world of the commons scholars. Theory and Society 26(1): 1-37.

Supplementary Readings:

Carol Rose (1986) The comedy of the commons: custom, commerce, and inherently public property. The University of Chicago Law Review 53(3): 711-781.

Week 6: Analyzing the Commons

The readings this week focus on ways of understanding and analyzing forms of the commons – and specifically common-pool resources (CPRs) or common property resources (defined as resources where the collective benefit is diminished if individuals pursue their own self-interest) – from around the globe. The chapter from Ostrom’s book explores several case studies of the management of CPRs, including systems in Switzerland, Japan, Spain and the Philippines, to gain insight into how different communities are addressing challenges related to collectively managing the commons. Cleaver examines the management of communal water resources in Zimbabwe, and, in doing so, offers a critical view of institutional explanations – largely based in economic rationality – of common property resource management.

Required Readings:

Elinor Ostrom (1990) Analyzing long-enduring, self-organized, and self-governed CPRs. In: Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 58-102.

Frances Cleaver (2000). Moral ecological rationality, institutions and the management of common property resources. Development and Change 31: 361-383.

Supplementary Readings:

Ronald J. Oakerson (1992) Analyzing the commons: a framework.” In: Bromley D (ed.) Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies. Pp. 41-59.

Week 7: New Enclosures

This week focuses on the contemporary processes of enclosure. In addition to the continuation of enclosure through ‘primitive accumulation,’ these readings highlight the processes of enclosure taking place through what geographer David Harvey calls, ‘accumulation through dispossession.’ The pieces by Wily and the Midnight Notes Collective situate the current situation in a broader history of the enclosures of the past and highlight the processes of land speculation, financialization and international debt – specifically focusing on enclosures in countries in Africa. The chapter by Bollier focuses on the acceleration of enclosure of ‘immaterial’ commons – such as knowledge and digital commons – through patents and intellectual property laws. Finally, Flinter discusses the commodification of nature by examining ‘biodiversity prospecting’ by international corporations.

Required Readings:

Liz Alden Wily (2012) The global land grab: the new enclosures. In: Bollier D and Helfrich S (eds) The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State. Levellers Press.

Midnight Notes Collective (1990) Introduction to the new enclosures. Midnight Notes 10: 1-9.

David Bollier (2003) When markets enclose the commons. In: Silent Thief: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge. Pp. 43-58.

Michael Flitner (1998) Biodiversity: of local commons and global commodities. In: Goldman M (ed.) Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons. Rutgers University Press. Pp. 144-166.

Supplementary Readings/Resources:

David Bollier and Jeremy Earp (2010) This Land is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons. This documentary film focuses on the recent enclosure of the commons through privatization.

Silvia Federici (1990) The debt crisis, Africa and the new enclosures. Midnight Notes 10: 10-17.

Michael Goldman (ed.) 1998. Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Week 8: Ecological (‘Global’) Commons – Water

Class this week will turn to consider a particular type of ecological commons – freshwater. The readings address water as a “global” commons – one that is under threat of enclosure through privatization in multiple communities. Barlow’s report focuses on the conflicting discourses and practices related to the globe’s freshwater resources – some regarding water as a commodity while, for others, it is a necessary global commons. The Ostrom et al, describes some of the possible considerations and challenges in considering sustainable water management through a rights discourse. Finally, the Bakker article examines resistance to water privatization and considers the commons as a politically-mobilizing concept for both academics and activists.

Required Readings:

Maude Barlow (2009) Our Water Commons: Towards a New Freshwater Narrative. Report for The Council of Canadians. Pp. 1-34.

Karen Bakker (2007) The ‘commons’ versus the ‘commodity’: alter-globalization, anti-privatization, and the human right to water in the global South. Antipode 39(3): 430-455.

Elinor Ostrom, Paul Stern and Thomas Dietz (2003) Water rights in the commons. Water Resources Impact 5(2): 9-12.

Supplementary Readings:

Adam Davidson-Harden (2009) Local Control and Management of Our Water Commons: Stories of Rising to the Challenge. Report for The Council of Canadians. Pp. 1-55.

Week 9: Ecological Commons – Land

The sharing of land has long been a tradition of communities around the world. This week’s readings consider the commons as a place-based phenomenon. The reading from Donahue examines a localized example of farming commons in one particular town. Campbell and Godoy, on the other hand, consider whether two cases of the commons in land are comparable across different geographic and historical contexts.  Assignment Due: Annotated Bibliography.

Required Readings:

Brian Donahue (1999) Reclaiming the commons. In: Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms & Forests in a New England Town. Pp. 279-308.

Bruce Campbell and Ricardo Godoy (1992) Commonfield agriculture: the Andes and medieval England compared. In: Bromley D (ed.) Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies. Pp. 63-93

Supplementary Readings/Resources:

Eric Freyfogle The Owner and the Land Community (135-156). In: The Land We Share: Private Property and the Common Good. Washington: Island Press

Week 10: Urban Commons

While the commons is typically associated with rural communities, this week focuses on the commons emerging within urban areas. Within these contexts, enclosure is often enacted through gentrification and property speculation. These readings consider the ways that communities are commoning within city landscapes. In their article, Gidwani and Baviskar briefly explore the diversity of the commons beyond those in rural areas, and specifically highlight ecological commons and civic commons in cities. Parthasarathy considers the persistence of urban commoning in Mumbai, India, as the city emerges as an increasingly “global city.” The article considers some of the methodological and conceptual issues related to making these ‘invisible’ practices visible within urban studies. Finally, Foster examines the opportunities and challenges involved in the governance of urban commons – particularly those forms of governance outside the public-private dichotomy. Part of class this week will be set aside to watch and discuss selections from The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse), a documentary film by Agnès Varda (2000) that shows contemporary forms of gleaning in both urban and countryside areas of France.

Required Readings:

Vinay Gidwani and Amita Baviskar (2011) Urban commons. Economic and Political Weekly 156(50): 42-43.

Devanathan Parthasarathy (2011) Hunters, gatherers and foragers in a metropolis: commonising the private and public in Mumbai.” Economic and Political Weekly 156(50): 54-63.

Sheila Foster (2011) Collective action and the urban commons. Notre Dame Law Review (87): 1-63.

Supplementary Readings:

Efrat Eizenberg (2012) Actually existing commons: three moments of space of community gardens in New York City. Antipode 44(3): 764-782.

Week 11: Knowledge Commons – Sharing Ideas and Information

The readings for this week explore knowledge as a form of share resource or commons, examining both the challenges posed by intellectual property laws and the opportunities of building and expanding this commons. Hess and Ostrom offer a brief history of the knowledge commons and consider the unique challenges and possibilities associated with this form of commons. Shiva examines the importance of creativity to scientific knowledge and the appropriation and enclosure of indigenous knowledges through intellectual property rights. Finally, Levine explores the process of creating and maintaining local knowledge commons.

Required Readings:

Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom (2007) Introduction – An overview of the knowledge commons. In: Understanding Knowledge as a Commons from Theory to Practice. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 1-26.

Vandana Shiva (1997) Knowledge, creativity, and intellectual property rights. In: Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston: South End Press. pp. 7-18.

Peter Levine (2007) Collective action, civic engagement, and the knowledge commons. In: Understanding Knowledge as a Commons from Theory to Practice. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 247-275.

Supplementary Readings/Resources:

Commons in Action (2014): A video on the knowledge commons developed by the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). This short video presents examples of knowledge commons and strategies for the governance of these commons.

George Martin and Saskia Vermeylen (2005) Intellectual property, indigenous knowledge, and biodiversity. Capitalism Nature Socialism 16(3): 27-48.

Week 12: Knowledge Commons Online – Digital/Internet Commons

This week continues with the theme from last week of the knowledge or information commons, but explores these commons in the context of digital technologies – most notably the Internet. Siefkes and Benkler consider modes of “peer production” based on the commons – resources that are collectively created and maintained by a particular community that decides how to share the resources more broadly. Specifically they examine the emergence of the ‘free software community.’ The reading from Linksvayer considers the ‘creative commons’ as an alternative to market-based intellectual property regimes. Assignment Due: Rough Draft of Research Paper.

Required Readings:

Christian Siefkes (2012) “The boom of commons-based peer productionn” In: David Bollier and Silke Helfrich (eds) The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State. Levellers Press.

Yochai Benkler (2006) Peer production and sharing. In: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press. pp. 59-90.

Mike Linksvayer. Creative commons: governing the intellectual commons from below. In: David Bollier and Silke Helfrich (eds) The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State. Levellers Press.

Supplementary Readings:

Christian Siefkes (2009) The commons of the future: building blocks for a commons-based society. The Commoner. Online at:

Lawrence Lessig (2002) The architecture of innovation. Duke Law Journal 51:1783-1801.

Week 13: Politics of the Commons – A Commoning Future

Readings for this week shift from a focus on defending existing commons to thinking about the political possibilities of commoning in creating alternative futures. De Angelis explores a new alternative political discourse based on identifying and validating the practices of the commons and communities. St. Martin considers a “cartography of the commons,” in order to make existing forms of commoning more visible and to imagine future commons.

Required Readings:

Massimo De Angelis (2003) Reflections on alternatives, commons and communities. The Commoner 6 (Winter). Accessible online at:

Kevin St. Martin (2009) Toward a cartography of the commons: constituting the political and economic possibilities of place. The Professional Geographer 61(4): 493-507.

Supplementary Readings:

James McCarthy (2005) Commons as counterhegemonic projects. Capitalism Nature Socialism 16:1: 9-24.

Week 14: The Commons Economy

Building on the readings from the last week, this week the readings consider the potential of the commons to offer a basis of alternative economies. Gibson-Graham open up the space for considering the economic diversity that exists in spite of the capitalist economy, and Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies consider the commons as a basis for creating a more equitable economy. If necessary, part of class will be set aside for some of the student presentations on research projects. Assignment Due: Presentations.

Required Readings:

J.K. Gibson-Graham (2006) Constructing a language of economic diversity. In: A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 52-78.

Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies (1999) Defending, reclaiming and reinventing the commons. In: The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy. pp. 141-164.

Supplementary Readings:

J.K. Gibson-Graham (2008) Diverse economies: performative practices for ‘other worlds.’ Progress in Human Geography 32(5): 1-20.

Week 15: Research Project Presentations

No readings for this week. Students will be presenting their research projects.



General Commons Resources

  • International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) brings together scholars, policymakers and practitioners to examine the governance and management of the commons. The website has a number of resources including videos, reports, and case studies.
  • On the Commons is a national network of individuals and organizations working to foster a commons-based society.
  • David Bollier’s website and blog contain many resources on the commons and examples of the commons, including some of the ones listed below.
  • The Wealth of the Commons is a book on the commons which is available online.

Examples of Commoning Projects

  • Book Mooch is an online community for exchanging used books.
  • Community gardens are areas that are gardened by a group of people. Governance structures and formats vary widely.
  • Connexions is a website where educators can share and adapt educational materials, including courses, books and reports.
  • Creative Commons is a way of sharing and maintaining cultural and knowledge commons.
  • Little Free Libraries are small neighborhood libraries where people can freely take or leave books.
  • History Commons is a website run by the Center for Grassroots Oversight as a tool for “open-content participatory journalism.” It is an online space for sharing grassroots investigations and resources.
  • International Music Score Library Project is a collaborative online project to share public domain music.
  • Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) are community-based not-for-profit systems of exchange where members can swap goods and services.
  • NeuroCommons Project makes scientific research materials available and useable to the wide public.
  • Project Gutenberg is an online collection of public-domain e-books.
  • Seed libraries enable people to freely share seeds.
  • Time Banking is a means of earning time credits through service, which are then spent to gain services from others in the community.


Commons (or ‘the commons’): a term with multiple definitions and associations, but largely considered to be a resource shared by a group of people.

Commoner: a person that utilizes the commons and participates in the management of the commons.

Commoning: the ‘doing’ of the commons (Linebaugh 2008) – the ongoing activity involved in managing a shared resource.

Common-pool resources (CPRs) or common property resources: resources where the collective benefit is diminished if individuals pursue their own self-interest. These resources are limited, such that overuse can lead to scarcity. Common property scholars thus tend to distinguish between common property and open access regimes – and suggest that Hardin confused the commons and common property resources with open access (something Hardin later admitted).

Common property regime: set of social relations used to manage a common-pool or common property resource.

Open access: free access – sometimes without designated or effective rules.

Tragedy of the commons: a metaphor – derived from Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article by the same name in Science – that signifies the environmental degradation that may occur when multiple individuals use a limited common resource.


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