Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The first woman awarded this honor, the Indiana University political scientist not only made history but also helped debunk widespread notions that the commons inevitably leads to tragedy. In 50 years of research from Nepal to Kenya to Switzerland to Los Angeles, she has shown that commonly held resources will not be destroyed by overuse if there is a system in place to manage how they are shared.

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Elinor Ostrom Outlines Best Strategies for Managing the Commons

Elinor Ostrom details the importance of commons management at the Minneapolis Festival of the Commons, co-sponsored by On the Commons and Augsburg College (Credit: Augsburg College)

A breakthrough for the commons came in 2009 when Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The first woman awarded this honor, the Indiana University political scientist not only made history but also helped debunk widespread notions that the commons inevitably leads to tragedy. In 50 years of research from Nepal to Kenya to Switzerland to Los Angeles, she has shown that commonly held resources will not be destroyed by overuse if there is a system in place to manage how they are shared.

How such systems work around the world was the topic of Ostrom’s keynote address at Minneapolis’ Festival of the Commons at Augsburg College Oct. 7—co-sponsored by On the Commons, Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning and The Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

Ostrom explained there is no magic formula for commons management. “Government, private or community,” she said, “work in some settings and fail in others.”


Ostrom cited Jane Jacobs— who believed that local people usually know more about what’s best for their communities than expertly-trained planners—as an influence on her work.

The most effective approach to protect commons is what she calls “polycentric systems,” which operate “at multiple levels with autonomy at each level.” The chief virtue and practical value of this structure is it helps establish rules that “tend to encourage the growth of trust and reciprocity” among people who use and care for a particular commons. This was the focus of her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm, which she opened by stressing a need for “developing new theory to explain phenomena that do not fit in a dichotomous world of ‘the market’ and ‘the state.’”

Addressing a crowded auditorium at the Minneapolis Festival, Ostrom pointed to an authoritative study of 100 protected forests in 14 countries, which shows that the cooperation of local people is more important to preserving these commons than whether a national government, local officials or someone else actually oversees the forests. If the people who live there feel they benefit long-term from how the forests are managed, she notes, they make sure the rules are followed. “When local groups have the right to harvest non-timber resources, they are more likely to monitor and sanction those who break the rules.”

Overall, she recommends local control as the best path for protecting a commons because it allows rules to be “based on unique aspects of a local resource and culture”. But the polycentric approach—a diverse web that might include some community or private governance along with different layers of government—“can have the benefits of local control, but still cope with the problems that come on a larger scale.”

What We Can Learn from New England Fishing Fleets

Ostrom also champions “self-organized” systems, where the people closely involved with a commons help “develop rules for themselves which can be quite different from what is in the textbooks.” Her favorite example of this is the intricate system of rules and enforcement created by fishing fleets in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to ensure there are enough lobsters for everyone.

*The first time the rules are broken, a bow is tied around the offending lobster trap. “Imagine these big lobstermen tying a bow on a pot,” she said with a laugh.

*On the second offense, the lobstermen visit the home of the offender to discuss the problem.

*On the third offense, the lobstermen break up the trap.

*On the fourth offense, it’s possible the lobstermen may destroy the offenders’ boat—but Ostrom is not certain it has ever come to that.

This way of governing the commons has proven effective because penalties are imposed gradually and enforced by the community itself. Although she cautioned that “Community control is not a panacea” anymore than private or government control in a panel discussions with local commons advocates after her talk at the Commons Festival.

What Local Cops and Jane Jacobs Have in Common

Before the speech, Ostrom met with students from various colleges around the Twin Cities, discussing her commons research in subjects beyond natural resources. She cited Jane Jacobs—the passionate advocate of neighborhoods who believed that local people usually know more about what’s best for their communities than expert planners—as an influence on her work.

Ostrom outlined her years of research on local police departments in 80 metropolitan areas across the country, studying them at a time when they were under pressure to consolidate operations in the name of efficiency. Yet most of them, she discovered, were able to achieve increased efficiency in resources like crime labs without merging into a huge metropolitan-wide forces.

Unfortunately, she added, schools were not able to resist consolidation. While there were 125,000 separate school districts across American in the 1930s, now there are 13,500.

“The ideas was that bigger schools would be cheaper,” she said, but that has not turned out to be true. Ostrom believes that both education and our democracy have suffered in the process. She pointed out that each of those 125,000 districts had at least five elected school board members, meaning that a much higher proportion of people then were directly involved with public affairs in their communities. That left me wondering if the widespread contempt for politics we see today would be so prevalent if more of us personally knew someone who actually served in public office.

Following Ostrom’s keynote speech, the audience flowed out into Murphy Square—the oldest public park in Minneapolis—to celebrate the many ways the commons enriches our lives with art, cuisine, community organizations and social interaction. The Brass Messenger band set a rollicking mood for the evening while a mob of theater students enacted a scene from the play Marat/Sade. The festival continued the next day with a walking tour of commons landmarks in the inner city neighborhood around Augsburg College led by Sabo Center chair Garry Hesser, followed by a commons bike tour led by Augsburg urban sociologist Lars Christiansen and me, which wound up at the site of the Occupy Minnesota protest downtown.


Jay Walljasper, editor of OnTheCommons.org and author of All That We Share and The Great Neighborhood Book, writes widely about cities, community, sustainability and travel. On The Commons is a commons movement strategy center.




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