Tag Archives: commons

Tent City Commons

Oppenheimer Park, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, is currently being occupied by a tent city. The homeless and housing activists, led by indigenous activists, have taken the park amidst an ongoing housing crisis. Vancouver’s annual homeless count recently found its highest number of homeless people ever, and the city’s definition of “affordable housing” is, to put it mildly, a farce. This is quite simply a city in which living on welfare (or even being on employment insurance or being underemployed) is untenable. So—people have taken the park.

The city has served an eviction notice, and park rangers and police officers arrived early on the morning of July 21. In an interesting turn of events, First Nations representatives in turn served the City of Vancouver with their own eviction notice—to leave these unceded territories. Post haste.

When a city cannot, and in fact refuses, to deal responsibly with its most marginalized peoples, and when the very nature of “public space” becomes the heart of the discussion around social sustainability, I am reminded of the commons. Private/public becomes a dichotomy that the commons escapes—because the commons is neither public nor private—it’s common. And that means it’s part of the provisioning of life we collectively depend upon and are responsible for, and to which we all should have access as a human right (a right to decent housing, a right of access to the satisfaction of basic human needs). When neither the city’s private nor its public space is adequately providing for people, the absence of the common is most acutely felt.

In writing on the history of the commons and enclosure (the theft of the commons from people whose livelihoods depended upon it), Peter Linebaugh notes that the city was always at least in part enclosed already. Of necessity, it was the place of markets and potential profit making, of private homes and “stores” of “goods.” Linebaugh, in Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, writes,

“The walls which once defended the city from enemies coming from the countryside now were interiorized to enclose urban wealth from the creation of commons in the city by workers who had lost their commons in the country” (26)

The Downtown Eastside has a disproportionate number of indigenous people who have indeed been thrown off their traditional lands “in the country”—suffering the enclosure of their territories for purposes of resource extraction—only to find themselves doubly enclosed in the city, where adequate jobs are scarce and rents are sky-high due to the generation of massive wealth through property speculation (often in waves of gentrification, displacing the marginalized from formerly “affordable” neighbourhoods). Where is the space for the commons in a city like Vancouver? That is, what can we share here, and what can we, collectively, have a share in? What space is there for such sharing, and for maintaining ourselves and our communities through such acts of mutual aid?

Or, as too often seems the case, is this a city for the rich only—a city in which no one shares, unless they can pay the exorbitant price of elite membership?

Day by day, the camp at Oppenheimer Park grows. There are more than 30 tents now. In the heart of this, one of the least affordable cities in the world, the demand for the commons has been raised again. Now, as the old saying goes, whose side are you on?

(Updated Wednesday July 23)


“Forest perambulations existed since at least the time of Magna Carta. They were ceremonial walks about a territory for asserting and recording its boundaries, that is, ‘beating the bounds.’ A perambulation was a kind of peripatetic map, or walkabout, in which briar-scratched skin, stubbed toes, aching legs aided the memory. … The perambulation of the New Forest authorized by Charles II in 1671 resulted in a Latin document that, translated, comprises a single sentence over six pages long, of approximately one thousand nine hundred and eighty words, many hundreds of prepositional phrases (the grammatical unit most having to do with position and direction)—to, from, by, beyond, across, in—and human and natural landmarks—ditch, post, hedge, vale, pond, gate, rover, oak, beech, grave, croft, marsh, lane, road, ford—with current name, alias, former names, thus making the text layered with semantic history and compact with minute orientation”
—Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto

Commons—shared resources upon which communities depend, and upon which these communities practice stewardship, in part so the shared resource will still be there for future sharing—are everywhere in human history, the heart of social reproduction, only squeezed to the periphery since the rise of the capitalist mode of production and social relations. Commons are spaces marked not by fixed property lines but by active boundaries of customary use: they often depend upon regular perambulations by their users, who collectively reaffirm the extent, status and health of their shared life-line and responsibility, as they walk its fluctuating periphery.

I had thought I could perambulate the bounds of certain proposed mine sites (Catface Mountain, Ajax, Testan Biny), reclaiming them as commons before they could be carved up and destroyed. Make a poem from this—that tempting six-page sentence Linebaugh recounts in the quotation above. But a piercing light radiates from regret, and art and aspiration sometimes stand in stark contrast against backgrounds of lived realities. Burtynsky’s photographs of oil spills that are dark tears in iris-textured water, mines that are deep terraced bore-holes in the earth, like descending rings of ochery infernos—aestheticized into a new opacity on gallery walls or between hard covers balanced atop privileged coffee tables. Take for example Taseko Mines Ltd (TKO, what a knockout), which has for decades been attempting to develop a mine at Fish Lake (Testan Biny) in what is called central British Columbia, sacred to the Tsilhqot’in people whose traditional lands it is. Can you claim as commons what indigenous land defenders have claimed as—home? Can you claim it as—art? In what ways does the European idea of the commons overlap with indigenous notions of the sacredness and primacy of the land (it “owns” you, you don’t “own” it)? I walk off the end of a phrase, into the space companies have marked—portfolio.

It’s the future that frightens. Our access and “right” to a to-come, to a tomorrow, that seems to be being taken away from us right now. To morrow, as a verb—something we common, through our desiring dependence upon that spatio-temporality of the not-yet, but sweetly anticipated. What sort of space is the future though, and how might we perambulate its bounds, claiming it as common—a preserve we will need to depend upon in perpetuity?

“Locked-in” climate change is in part based on the fact that there is enough carbon still in the ground, and yet identified, calculated, speculated upon, given value form, sold and invested before it is even removed, to fry us all, well and truly. That is, it’s mining is financially a foregone conclusion, almost an after-thought, already an asset on the market, already part of the bottom line, enough there to push us past CO2 levels scientists have identified as limits to a liveable planet. The future has been enclosed, monetized, bought and sold and—already burnt. Mutually assured economic destruction. But in what way was “mutually assured destruction” ever—mutual? We are now already the future the past dreamt of—or are we? Are we the ones we’ve been waiting for? How to negate futures we don’t want to unfold—futures already being constructed all around us by doomsday market forces—and so open the future to other—scenarios?

These are some of the questions luring me right now. This doubt, this uncertainly, might somehow be the ground of a new writing “project” that I will use this blog to wander towards, haltingly, catching glimpses of past, present, and future commons, sighting along the peripheries of the present state of extraction, looking industry in its carboniferous eye, and finding hope in the eyes of those I march with, in city streets and rural fields.