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The Twin Myths of Commons and Private


Date
Location
Buffalo, NY

One pervasive claim that undergirds the justification for planning is that it can deal with the commons problem. Three types of solutions are usually proposed; privatisation, government regulation & collective management (Ostrom, 2010). The purpose of planning, ala Alexander (2001), is to align the right institutional design to for the problem. Usually this means that the proposed institutional designs are necessary and sufficient to solve the Hardinian tragedy, though there are tragedies associated with the proposed solutions too (Davy, 2012). However, I argue that such characterisation is based on the false dichotomy between commons and private and relies on analytic difficulties associated with rights based on individualism. Group commons are tightly bound with the conceptions of individual private property and membership conditions and transfer restrictions (Kaza, 2013).

In this paper, I draw from Singer (2000) who argues that property rights comprise of rights, privileges, immunities and powers. They are not assigned a priori but are constantly renegotiated. Nor is the assignment restricted to particular individuals, but many groups can come to hold these rights. To give a more realistic account of property rights, we have to appeal to the rights and obligations that flow from multiple and overlapping groups that each of us may be, or may become, part of. These include property rights held in common by a group exclusively for its members, as well as private rights that can only be held in the context of the commons. A bike lane is commons to the bikers, private to the bikers (an ephemeral, imperfectly delineated group) at the same time. At the same time, rights and obligations to the bike lane are granted to other users of the roads, citizens of the city, and parking users among others. The differences between the commons and private goods then are not in the characteristics of the resource units or the resource systems (excludability, subtractibility, rivalry) but in the constantly renegotiated bundles of entitlements assigned and reassigned to different groups. This recharacterisation does not obviate the need for averting the tragedies. I argue that it provides a better understanding of various types of commons that are prevalent. Many commons, including the open-access ones have been successfully managed over time. At the same time, some of the externalities associated with private property are simply the unmanaged commons tragedies. Using examples from different urban planning cases, paying particular attention to stability of institutions, I will argue the points that both private and commons should be radically rethought to provide better justifications for planning.