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ABOVE: Robert Swann with members of New Communities, Inc. at planning meeting circa 1970
All of us are joint owners of a trove of hidden assets. These assets— natural gifts like air and water, and social creations like science and the Internet— constitute our shared inheritance — the Commons. They’re vital to our lives and are at the heart of all economic activity.
A New Land Tenure System
Since its founding the Schumacher Center for a New Economics has been committed to developing a new tenure system for the Natural Commons -- Earth, Air, Fire (the minerals), and Water. Our premise is that these Nature-given assets are our Common Wealth, needed by all. To keep them in private ownership gives an unfair advantage to the titleholder who can charge "rent" for their use – an "unearned increment," to use the phrase of Henry George. This economic advantage is one of the key reasons for inordinate disparities in wealth accumulation.
At the same time a regulation of use is necessary and a means for collecting income from that use is key to ensuring common benefit. Our approach has been to develop non-profit community land trusts to hold and manage the Natural Commons on behalf of the inhabitants of a particular place.
The Earth is in crisis due to an economic system that treats our Natural Commons as commodities to exploit rather than as “a community to which we belong,” (Leopold 1949). The reform of our property-tenure system is urgent – at stake are the future health of our ecosystem and a fair economy for all.
Community Land Trust Program -- Historic Roots with the Schumacher Center
A community land trust is a democratically-governed, regionally based, open membership organization. Through an inheritable and renewable long-term lease, the trust removes land from the speculative market and facilitates multiple uses such as workforce housing, village improvement, sustainable agriculture, and recreation. Individual leaseholders own the buildings and other improvements on the land created by their labor and investment, but do not own the land itself. Resale agreements on the buildings ensure that the land value of a site is not included in future sales, but rather held in perpetuity on behalf of the regional community.
In 1967, Schumacher Center's founding president Robert Swann joined with lawyer Slater King, president of the Albany Movement in Georgia and a cousin of Martin Luther King, Jr., out of a common concern to achieve secure access to land for African-American farmers in the rural South. They traveled to Israel to study the legal documents of the Jewish National Fund that separate ownership of land from the ownership of buildings on the land (LEFT: Slater King, Robert Swann, Marion King, Faye Bennett in Israel, 1968).
On returning they contracted to purchase a large farm and began a planning process with local residents to structure ownership and build a settlement of homes and farm buildings. Charles Sherrod, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and his wife Shirley Sherrod were part of that group. New Communities, Inc., the first community land trust, was formed out of those planning meetings. The story of its creation is detailed in the 1972 publication, The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America available in pdf form here.
The movement has since grown to include over 250 community land trusts throughout the US and is widely understood as the best model for developing permanently affordable homeownership opportunities in regions where land prices are escalating.
The Schumacher Center for a New Economics has provided research and administrative support to the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires (CLTSB), founded in 1980, and its sister organization, Berkshire Community Land Trust, founded in 2015. CLTSB owns three tracts of land, including the site of the Schumacher Center's Library. CLTSB also holds Forest Row, a residential neighborhood of permanently affordable home ownership, and Indian Line Farm, the first Community Supported Agriculture farm in North America, where the lease recognizes the famers' equity investments in their home, farm buildings, and other site improvements including soil improvements.
Still in their initial stage of collaboration, the strategic goal of these volunteer-led sister organizations is to demonstrate how community ownership and control of land can be leveraged to foster economic resilience. Working together they can achieve goals like preserving Main Street for locally owned businesses, ensuring that local farms produce food for local people using good farming practices, establishing sites for community supported industry, and developing strong neighborhoods for full-time residents with local jobs
Indian Line Farm, the first Community Supported Agriculture farm in North America, is a model for farmland preservation and conservation through a unique partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, and farmers Elizabeth Keen and Alexander Thorp. Addressing the critical connections between ecology, economy, and community, this model project is protecting habitat, preserving agricultural property, and keeping small-scale, organic farming viable.
Reinventing the Commons Program
Broadening the scope of the Commons, the Schumacher Center's new Reinventing the Commons Program, under development by David Bollier, explores how shared assets such as the Internet, cultural legacy, law, and technological achievements should be treated in society, in the process discovering a new framework for understanding core institutional structures and for addressing society's most intactable problems.
To learn more about Reinventing the Commons, visit David Bollier's website.
Seventy percent of US farmland is owned by those 65 years and older, with an estimated 400 million acres set to change hands in the next 29 years. It is critical that we identify ways to move land into the hands and care of next-generation farmers building resilient regional food economies. Those farmers should be able to capitalize a business, sustain a livelihood and build equity, while affording secure access to land. What might a sustainable agricultural community look like in the near future?
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