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New Commons & Public Land

Paula Renzel

Paula Renzel undertook a student placement at Shared Assets this year as part of the final term of her BA in Politics at Goldsmiths College. Here she shares her thinking on the links between the theoretical work of the economist Elinor Ostrom and the reality of the management of public land by Organic Lea, a London based food growing coop.

The work of economist Elinor Ostrom has provided inspiration in the development of Shared Assets since it was created in 2012.

Ostrom’s Principles:

Ostrom conducted extensive empirical research on the management of natural resources. Her aim was to determine what successful models of the governance and organisation of collective action look like. She demonstrated that there is not one specific ownership model defining the quality of the management and no one-size-fits-all governance model that guarantees the sustainable use of a resource.

Ostrom’s research is focused around what she calls ‘Common Pool Resources’ or CPRs. First, she defines CPRs as being ‘subtractable’, which means that the more they are used, the less of it will be available. This is one reason why these resources face the risk of being overused. Secondly, they are ‘non-excludable’, meaning that people cannot be forbidden from using the resource. Again, this may lead to the resource being overused and depleted.

However Ostrom did not see the depletion of these resources as inevitable. Through her analyses of several successful CPRs, Ostrom identified a set of eight principles which, when followed, seem to lead to a tailored, bottom-up governance structure enabling the productive and sustainable use of a given resource.

The principles Ostrom identified are:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.


Ostrom proposed that if her principles are adhered to, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ can be avoided.

The project:

As part of my internship at Shared Assets, I decided to look into whether Ostrom’s theoretical framework could have practical applications in the United Kingdom. The aim was to understand the relevance of Ostrom’s work to the management of public land and the historical concept of commons in the UK.

To test this, I carried out a research project linking the first seven of the principles mentioned above to the work of a community farm called OrganicLea in North East London. Could OrganicLea be flourishing for similar reasons to Ostrom’s case studies? And could this inform approaches to the management of similar public assets?

The resource in question here is a 12 acre site named Hawkwood owned by Waltham Forest Council, and used as a council plant nursery until it was closed in 2007. The site has being leased from the council and productively and sustainably managed by OrganicLea, a workers coop, since 2009. OrganicLea are the organisational structure I decided to look at in the context of CPR management, as they are a primary example of successful land-based social enterprise in the UK.


I based my approach primarily on Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons. This is a summary and analysis of her findings after several years of research, conducting case studies across the world. OrganicLea has been working closely with Shared Assets and I was able to use data collected by Shared Assets as part of a current collaborative project between the two organisations focusing on the role of community food enterprises in local economic resilience. Finally, I found a lot of information about OrganicLea’s constitution, ethics and governance model on its website.

Summary of my findings:

This research is only preliminary and it would be particularly interesting to spend more time, and conduct further primary research to develop more nuanced findings. However even this preliminary approach provided interesting insights.

Hawkwood fits in very well with the types of CPR described by Ostrom. Indeed, it could be described as a ‘new commons’ – a term coined by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. Whist it may be argued that in some practical senses the site is ‘excludable’ in that it is fenced and gated, as public land situated within a fast developing London borough it is vulnerable to being overused, enclosed or endangered by social dilemmas, and it requires management and protection by the group that uses it. The way OrganicLea have successfully organised this management and protection in order to prevent overuse, “enclosure by privatisation” or social dilemma corresponds closely to the sort of principles described by Ostrom. The design principles she identified looking at cases e.g. in Switzerland, Spain and The Philippines seem to not only match the way OrganicLea uses Hawkwood, but also enable us to understand the success of the organisation.

The following are two examples of relevance of Ostrom’s principles to OrganicLea:

  • Example 1: Elinor Ostrom’s first principle underlines the crucial importance, for a CPR to be successfully managed, of defining clear boundaries. This includes clear boundaries in terms of how much of the resource itself is used, but also who has access to it. The work of OrganicLea, who open the site to volunteers and a wide range of public users, but who manage and oversee their work, shows that this is indeed relevant to the management of public environmental assets today, as everyone involved in the work of the organisation has clear defined roles and regulated access to the land. By protecting the public nature / non-excludability of the land, but cooperatively regulating its use they have laid the foundations for an institutional structure successfully avoiding the tragedy of the commons.
  • Example 2: The second of Ostrom’s principles is about meeting local needs and conditions. OrganicLea are actively involved in the local community, consult with local people and users of the site, and collaborate closely with the local council. This has largely contributed to their success and them becoming a leader in their field.

In the spirit of Elinor Ostrom’s work, OrganicLea are not only successful in their management of Hawkwood, they have been exemplary in developing their relationships with the council and the wider community.

This case study demonstrates that Ostrom’s principles are relevant to the management of public land in the UK. The site being publically-owned means that it is, in some senses at least, non-excludable. Instead of OrganicLea obtaining a lease, it could have been sold or leased for more commercial or private purposes, putting it at risk of enclosure and commodification. In contrast the use OrganicLea makes of Hawkwood benefits the land and the surrounding community.

OrganicLea shows that current land based social enterprises, and other community initiatives around land management, are at the centre of successful new commons. They provide a model for how social enterprises and other groups can control public land, to make it work for everyone.

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