The Commons Guide to Placemaking (2): The West Marin Commons experience

This is our second excerpt from:

* (e)Book: How to Design Our World for Happiness. The commons guide to placemaking, public space, and enjoying a convivial life. By Jay Walljasper and On the Commons, 2013.

How One Small Town Lives the Commons: An interview with Elizabeth Barnet, director of the West Marin Commons. Interview by Jessica Conrad, Community and Content Manager for On The Commons.

Jessica Conrad:

“In 2006, a group of folks living around the small town of Point Reyes Station, California came together to establish, preserve, and enhance community and natural spaces in the semi-rural western region of Marin County. After a series of discussions in which the idea of the commons came up, an organization called West Marin Commons emerged with the broader mission of creating social infrastructure for resource sharing, conservation, and learning.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Barnet, the director of West Marin Commons. Here she explains the organization’s founding story, its current work and shares how her passion for community work led her to collaborate with the late Jonathan Rowe, an author, activist, former Congressional aide and co-founder of On the Commons.

What led you to work with West Marin Commons?

In 2006, my kids and I became involved in a cleanup project with the Tomales Bay Watershed Council on the lower end of Tomales Bay. I was homeschooling them at the time, and I always emphasized learning about the place where we lived. Seeing the value of this to the small group of children I worked with, I began to seek ways to make similar experiences available to the broader community. I discovered a fledgling website for the Tomales Bay Institute (which became On the Commons when it moved to Minneapolis). It was my first introduction to the word “commons,” and it resonated with me right away. I contacted Jonathan Rowe, who was the director, and we met regularly.

A commons survey was proposed on the Tomales Bay Institute website. We used this survey approach to evaluate and measure the layout of our town and we used reading and discussion to consider our roles and the meaning of commons. These exercises were empowering for the kids, and they helped us all discover Point Reyes Station as our place—something we share and take care of together.

Has the idea of the commons caught on in your community?

I’ve been impressed by how many people in town use the word “commons” more and more. But I find that the commons is misinterpreted when people assume that it is ”free” for the taking and not necessarily for the giving. I always try to emphasize the reciprocal aspect of a commons—that our ownership implies we are responsible for protecting and promoting the things we share.

Learning how to navigate these challenges is what West Marin Commons is all about. Here in the U.S. we don’t necessarily develop habits that lead us toward shared decision-making and ownership. I believe education is key for helping people understand the commons approach—and that’s something we can provide at West Marin Commons.

Has the commons approach helped address a community challenge?

Yes, I can think of a number of ways the commons approach has helped the community. Transportation is a good example. We live in a rural place, and we have to do a lot of driving both in town and “over the hill” where people go shopping, see the doctor, many kinds of things. We created a rideshare program called the Over-the-Hill-Gang (which has nothing to do with age, but refers to the fact that you have to drive over an actual hill to get out of town). There’s no insurance, no formality. The forum is just a place for people to connect.

What has been easy or challenging about creating these solutions?

Solutions are needed, and the best thing is that people are both open to new ideas and hungry for inspiration. That makes commons work easy. What makes it hard is getting clear on assumptions. What really is the commons? And how do we intentionally protect and promote it?

What are you working on now at West Marin Commons?

We have three areas that we’re focused on now: Commons Spaces, Commons Celebration, and Commons Connect. Commons Spaces has to do with the town commons lot, the native garden, and the gathering places and pathways in West Marin. We need places where everyone is welcome—every community does.

Commons Celebration is all about celebrating the commons through seasonal, celebratory events, including apple pressing events and barn dances. I love apple pressing because it’s about bounty: we simply have too many apples. It’s nice when you have too much of a commons—especially a physical commons. We have lots of varieties of apples here, and kids love making different flavored apple juices. But beyond the fun, these events have become opportunities for the community to gather.

Commons Connect, our website that includes our forums, is a virtual gathering place. We try to provide the infrastructure for self-help. Those who live here use our local forums, such as West Marin Share, where people post a personal need or offering, or they might post a need on behalf of the preschool or senior living facility. Maybe they’re looking for a desk or bookshelf or lost cat or food for a sick neighbor or the name of a good podiatrist. The website also serves visitors via a calendar and other features. It’s a place where newcomers can start to get connected. There are countless examples. It’s an online gathering place for West Marin.

Another of our central efforts is to provide a nexus including a calendar, a listing of local media and blogs, and a directory. We are also starting to profile happenings and projects in West Marin that wouldn’t get such multi-media coverage otherwise.”

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