News &
opinion

The commons in a time of COVID

Kim Graham

How can we maintain and strengthen the commons during a pandemic and beyond?

I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled to write this blog. We’ve been a bit quiet on here recently, and I think I, like the rest of the Shared Assets’ team, have found getting the mental space to write creatively and expansively pretty difficult with everything going on right now. But we’ve been beavering away behind the scenes, convening and supporting common good land stewards and users as best we can, and daring to dream about the more environmentally and socially just land systems that could flourish post-COVID.

At the same time, we sense there is a much wider reawakening to the centrality of land going on, in particular because of:

  • the desire for nearby green space to safely exercise or connect with nature in
  • the impulse to grow more of our own food as the usual retail outlets’ supply chains fall short, don’t feel like safe places to go, or are unaffordable

At the same time, the inequalities in being able to use the land for these and other activities under lockdown have been laid bare. For example:

  • more than a third of London’s wealthiest wards are parkland, dropping to a quarter in the poorest wards; gardens make up more than a third of the area in the wealthiest London wards but just a fifth in the poorest wards (Duncan, McIntyre and Cutler, 2020)
  • there has been a 65% decline in allotment land from its peak in the 1950s, resulting in the loss of food growing land for an average of 6% of the urban population, with the most at-risk areas for food insecurity facing eight times the level of allotment closures than the least deprived areas (Dobson, Edmondson and Warren, 2020)
Misty view over the trees and hills of the Churnet Valley

This has only reinforced for us the need for the expansion of the commons, physical and otherwise – of land, of seeds, of data and information, to name just a few – and for the strengthening of structures which support them. To help with this, we are working to:

  • Bring together existing common good land users, and mobilise people who want to use land for the common good, to emerge from this uncertain time better equipped. For example we are working with LION to host a weekly Food Justice Call with people of colour involved in food growing, food aid, and mutual aid work in relation to food
  • Undertake collaborative research which underpins the case for common good land use as it relates to people’s health and wellbeing, and resourceful and ethical local economies, amongst other things (you can read more about our approach to this in a blog I did here)
  • Add our voice to the many others who are saying that the sacrifices of the COVID pandemic era must be a further wake-up call to radically change our society – we are looking to build powerful shared narratives that tell the story of what we have just experienced, reflect on the lessons it has taught us, and advocate for models of land use that are socially, economically and environmentally just and sustainable (if you would like to be part of this work, get in touch with us at hello@sharedassets.org.uk)

Just as we seek to take some silver linings from this tragic situation, so will those in power seek to cement their modes of domination. We must therefore continue to act prefiguratively – to build the world we want today in spite of the confines and hierarchies of the current exploitative, capitalist, colonialist, and white supremacist systems of power.

Thankfully, many of the approaches we need already exist. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent quite a lot of time recently writing about promising access to land practices across the UK as part of the Europe-wide Ruralization project we’re part of (which you can read more about here). I’ve also been looking into models of public and community-led land ownership and management across the globe as part of our work in reimagining County Farms (local authority owned farmland) with NEF and CPRE. Both these strands of work have been good in terms of helping me see beyond the current situation we find ourselves in and imagine better possible futures germinating from these seeds already planted.

We must continue to act prefiguratively - to build the world we want today in spite of the confines and hierarchies of the current exploitative, capitalist, colonialist, and white supremacist systems of power.

A recent survey showed most of the UK public want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth during and after the immediate coronavirus crisis, and there have been some successes in the midst of all the bleak headlines, such as the Ecological Land Coop smashing their target of £400,000 to support 18 new small farms by the end of 2023 (if you still want to invest in this – click here). These are encouraging indications of changing priorities and the resources people are willing to dedicate to securing a more environmentally and socially sustainable future. However, when so many people are struggling to make ends meet day to day, deliberate action is needed to ensure the benefits of these initiatives are not only accessible to more privileged groups in society. Below, I’ve added a few links which give ways to stand in solidarity with some of the people most at risk right now (particularly in the land and food systems), and some things to take inspiration and learn from as we plan ways out of the current crisis and build a fairer future together. As always, if any part of this blog, or our work more generally, resonates with you, and you would like to link up, please get in touch at hello@sharedassets.org.uk.

  • Contribute to the Land Workers’ Alliance Solidarity Pot, read their top tips on supporting your local farmers during the pandemic, and join their political training webinar this Friday to help with their vital lobbying work 
  • Support the IWGB’s legal action against the government over its failure to protect the wages and jobs of millions of precarious workers (including food delivery couriers) during the Covid-19 pandemic 
  • Donate to the Resourcing Racial Justice Fund which is helping sustain and invest in communities of colour, who are disproportionately affected by the COVID crisis, due to structural and systemic inequality
  • Make a donation to La Vía Campesina and support their #StayHomeButNotSilent campaign to continue the fight for peasants’ rights
  • Read Guppi Bola’s great blog on Decolonising the Climate Conversation, which highlights people of colour’s efforts to resist the climate crisis and provide a vision for a just and sustainable future, particularly through song, dance, and farming
  • Chip in to the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park Survival Appeal to help them maintain their services in a much-loved East London green space
  • Listen to the For the Wild podcast, which hosts many expansive and thought-provoking conversations on land and liberation
  • Ask your local councillor to give people safe access to more green space by opening golf courses to the public during lockdown
  • Keep engaged with some of the inspiring speakers and organisations involved in the Oxford Real Farming Conference via their blog

Enjoyed this article?

If so you can sign up to the Shared Assets newsletter for free and we'll send you an email once a month with our latest news and thoughts. Don't worry though - we'll never clog up your inbox with spam or pass your details onto other companies - we hate that stuff too.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.