September 19, 2013

Legal Structures for Protecting the Commons

From trusts to co-ops, six practical forms of “commons ownership”

More and more, people are beginning to recognize the immense value of our commons and search for ways to protect them. Here we’ve compiled a short list of time-proven tools and commons-based models we can use to either protect our shared resources for the benefit of all or make the places we live and work more equitable and participatory. You’ll find descriptions of each tool and links to articles for further reading.

— Jessica Conrad

Agricultural land trust: A legal mechanism that enables private or cooperative organizations to conserve and manage farmland, acknowledging that while the land may be privately held, it is nonetheless a commons upon which future generations depend.

Cooperative: A commons-based business structure in which employees or customers own an enterprise and share in all decision making.

Co-housing: A cooperative living arrangement in which residents own property together and share in both decision-making and many aspects of daily life. Different from a commune in that residents have private space, including usually their own kitchen. However, community kitchens and social spaces are typical in many co-housing developments.

Land trust: A legal mechanism that enables private organizations to conserve and manage land for public enjoyment. Community land trusts have become popular as a way to preserve both nature and affordable housing.

Public trust doctrine: A legal principle dating back to Roman law which says that the state holds certain resources—notably access to bodies of water— in trust for its citizens, prohibiting any transfer of those resources to private interests. This doctrine was strengthened in English common law and by rulings of various U.S. federal and state courts.

Trust: A legal entity created to manage assets on behalf of beneficiaries. This can be a useful tool in preserving and managing commons outside the realm of government.