Restoring the Commons Makes Quality of Life Top Priority

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

Restoring the Commons Makes Quality of Life Top Priority


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


Enrique Penalosa was mayor of Bogota, Colombia's capital city, from 1998 to 2001. His administration accomplished the following: It led a team that created the Trans-Milenio, a bus rapid transit system, which now carries a half-million passengers daily. It built 52 new schools, refurbished 150 others, and increased student enrollment by 34 percent. It improved water service to 100 percent of Bogota's households, and established 300 kilometers of bikeways, the largest network in the world. It reduced traffic by almost 40 percent by implementing a system under which motorists must leave cars at home during rush hour two days a week.

Penalosa's administration created the world's longest pedestrian street, 17 kilometers crossing much of the city, as well as a 45-kilometer green-way along a route originally slated for an eight-lane highway. His administration planted 100,000 trees.

Penalosa now travels the world speaking about renewing urban spaces into human-friendly environments.

"If we in the Third World measure our success or failure as a society in terms of income, we would have to classify ourselves as losers until the end of time," Penalosa said. "With our limited resources, we have to invent other ways to measure success. This might mean that all kids have access to sports facilities, libraries, parks, schools, nurseries."

Penalosa likes to talk in terms of quality of life, but there is no one who better champions the idea of the commons. Quality of life equals common wealth, he says.

The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment--forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land--that are shared, used and enjoyed by all. Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include "public goods" such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water-delivery systems). There also exists the "life commons," e.g., the human genome.

The commons are the social and political space where things get done and where people have a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives, providing sustenance, security and independence. The commons refers to a wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone, ranging from clean air to wildlife preserves, to the judicial system to the Internet. Some are new, like Wikipedia; some are ancient, like colorful words and phrases from the world's languages.

"As the market economy becomes the yardstick for measuring the worth of everything," writes Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, "people are grabbing portions of the commons as their private property. Many essential elements of society--from ecosystems to scientific knowledge to public services--are slipping through our hands and into the pockets of the rich and powerful. …

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