Reclaiming the Commons

The United States is full of everyday commons management systems such as public libraries, the Internet, blood banks, and parks. Although commercial intrusion into previously public or “common” space is widespread, new efforts to preserve and expand what is held to be in the public domain have emerged in recent years. Three factors, in particular, have spurred this development:

  • Environmentalists, and particularly those working to address global warming and declining open space, have revived the traditional idea of the environment as a common space;
  • The emergence of an “information commons” made possible by the Internet and computer technology which focuses on protecting intellectual and creative freedom;
  • Globalization, which has sparked interest in organizing to rebuild local public spaces and community networks that protect non-commodity values such as family time.


The concept of “the commons” dates back to Roman law. As author and commons activist Peter Barnes has noted, in Roman times, bodies of water, shorelines, wildlife, and air were explicitly classified as resources, available to all. In modern times, preserving the commons – the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the resources we share (e.g., parks, libraries, and the internet) has gained increasing prominence. In 2009, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Eleanor Ostrom for her pioneering studies on how commons resources can be democratically managed through decentralized, democratic institutions.

Efforts to reclaim the commons play a critical role in building community wealth for several key reasons:

  • They ensure the revenues generated from local resources will benefit all community members.
  • They ensure all community residents can access the knowledge and information they need to make informed decisions.
  • They bring together people and strengthen the social networks in communities, which is critical to creating and sustaining healthy localities.
  • They return local control over natural resources, which helps ensure such resources will not be exploited by outsiders, and instead, can benefit all community members for generations to come. houses an extensive collection of resources focused on Reclaiming the Commons and this strategy’s role in community wealth building.  Below is a glimpse of the rich array of materials you will find as you explore our site:

Our Support Organizations section features major organizations that are leading national efforts to reclaim the commons.  One such group is On the Commons, which aims to build and bring visibility to the commons movement, catalyze commons work, and develop leadership in this arena.

Key Facts & Figures

Total acres conserved by state, local and national land trusts, 2015 vs. 2000

56 million vs. 24 million*

Ranking of Wikipedia in terms of # of visits among all websites worldwide (2018)


Creative Commons free copyright licenses issued (2017)

1.4 billion*

Estimated # of community gardens in U.S./Canada


Our Best Practices section showcases exemplary organizations working to preserve or expand public access to important resources.  For example, the Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit  dedicated  to encouraging the growth, development, and distribution of free, multilingual, educational content.  In addition to its encyclopedia, Wikipedia, its projects include a multi-language dictionary/thesaurus (Wiktionary), a collection of e-book resources for students (Wikibooks), and a repository for other forms of open-access media files (Wikimedia Commons).

Our Research Resources section highlights web-based resources focused on the commons.  For example, the Indiana University’s Digital Library of the Commonsis a website thatprovides free access to an archive of international literature on the commons including full-text articles, papers, and dissertations.  The site also includes an author-submission portal, an image database, a comprehensive bibliography, a keyword thesaurus, and links to relevant reference sources.

Our Articles and Publications section includes links to a diverse selection of articles, reports, papers, and books focused on reclaiming the commons.  One such report is the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Economics and the Common(s): From Seed Form to Core Paradigm, which highlights key outcomes of the Foundation’s May 2013 conference that brought together 200 people from more than 30 countries to explore the commons “as an alternative worldview and provisioning system.”

Lastly, our Toolbox features resources designed to help on-the-ground practitioners working to reclaim the commons.  For example, Peter Barnes’ Capitalism 3.0:  A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons describes a number of new property rights, birthrights, and institutions that would enlarge the commons sector and then outlines specific steps that people could take to help build and nurture the commons.