The last "commons" in Madison

The commons was an idea, descended from English custom.  It was a common grazing ground near a village, where everyone could graze their cow.  Early Boston had one.

The Boston Commons today

As the environmental movement ramped up in the 1960s, Garrett Hardin wrote an influential article, The Tragedy of the Commons.  He described the process, at work in many places of public ownership, where lack of regulation leads to environmental abuse.

According to Hardin, on a common grazing ground, each farmer has an incentive to add one more cow, even if that cow will overburden the pasture, and cause loss of productivity.  This decline might come from erosion, or the increase of inedible plants, such as thistle.

Each private farmer who adds a cow gets 100% of the benefit from this action.  Yet he shares the losses from adding the cow with all the other farmers.  Because of these skewed incentives, the commons inevitably declines.  The only solution is for some central authority to regulate the pasture.

The commons idea persists today.  We have the atmosphere and the oceans--both in steady decline.

Runoff into Lake Mendota after a heavy storm (UW Engineering Dept)

Today, the Boston Commons is highly regulated as a famous park.  The public still gets to use it for strolling or picnics, but you can't add a cow or a chicken.

The commons in Madison

In Madison we have many public areas--streets, parks, and public buildings.  But these are highly regulated, and aren't analogous to the original Boston Commons.

But we do have some places that are like a commons.  These are our lakes, greenways, and terraces (area between sidewalk and street).

Our lakes are in gradual decline because no one takes responsibility for them, although everyone wants to use them as they see fit.

Contractors dump waste into the stormsewers because they--and the lake beyond the pipe--are seen as a commons (click to enlarge).

There's another kind of commons that's under our radar, because these places aren't seen as useful: terraces, and small greenways.  They are really treated as "wastelands"--the way we used to treat wetlands.


Terraces are owned by the City--and often used for gas pipes and trees.  But the terrace surface is a defacto no-man's land.  Typically, the homeowner exercises nominal control over them by mowing.

So here's the question: How could terraces be abused--or how could they be put to work for the benefit of all?

First abuse:  When terraces are allowed to erode, they send sediment and nutrients to the lakes.
Erosion at Queen of Peace church

A lesser abuse is simply allowing them to shed their runoff to the street.  In older neighborhoods, soil builds up on the terraces (through expansion of tree roots).  The lower sidewalks become streams, dumping their water to the streets.  This increases flooding, and the runoff of nutrients to the lakes.  Both erosion and runoff problems are extremely common.

Another kind of abuse is parking cars on the terrace.  In the Sunset Village neighborhood, many streets don't have curbs.  When people park their cars on sloped terraces, this leads to erosion.

The City has a program for building rain gardens on terraces when streets are resurfaced.  But this process is very slow, and doesn't address the issue of runoff from the sidewalks.

However, citizens can put their terrace to work--beautifying the neighborhood and helping the lakes--by building a "one hour rain garden" along the edge of their sidewalk.


There are many small stormwater channels throughout Madison.  Most people are unaware of their existence.  Coyotes, foxes, deer, raccoons, and possums use them to move secretly around town, keeping rabbits from overrunning our gardens.

Many are used as a common dumping ground for yard waste and construction debris.

The greenway as wasteland or habitat
(Between S. Owen Dr & Clifden Dr)

This was the case for the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway.  Because no one exercised responsibility, it was allowed to erode, until the sewage line buried there was threatened.  For fifty years, it had been treated as a wasteland.  Then the City had to replace the sewage line, raising much controversy.

Reconstruction of the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway was controversial.

Controversy always arises when the authorities finally step in to regulate the commons or wasteland.  Each neighbor has developed their own way of using the commons--whether for nature appreciation, or dumping, or just a privacy screen.  Whatever the City decides to do with the commons, there's change, and a lot of people get upset.

So again, how can we use greenways for the public good?  Since they are fertile places with running water, they have enormous potential to beautify Madison and provide habitat.

Greenways are wonderful places for children to play outdoors. Many adults raised in Madison--like Craig Miller-- have fond memories of a childhood spent in the greenway.

Greenways have great potential to become alternate pathways in the neighborhood.  Instead of walking around the block, you can stroll down the greenway, observing woodland plants, birds, and getting a different view of the neighborhood.

However, creating paths raises privacy and security concerns.   These surfaced during debates about the Hillcrest-Upland greenway.  I believe that the benefit of getting to know your neighbors outweighs privacy issues.  Inexpensive security cameras, and motion-sensing lights, can easily address security concerns.

Another use of  greenways could be planting nurseries for woodland plants.

At a time when public officials seem paralysed, there's much citizens can do to improve our city.  Roll up your sleeves and get to work on the commons...  it feels much better than complaining about politicians.

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Read about a similar movement in New York here.

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