Banning foraging in NYC

It is deeply disappointing that NYC parks would move to ban foraging in parks. And that they would use the thoroughly discredited argument that “if everyone did it there would be nothing left”. In the NYTimes article (see above link) they have a wonderful quote from the Central Park Conservancy, “If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks.” This argument is a version of the “Tragedy of the Commons” argument first made by Garrett Hardin in 1968. The general gist of the argument is that if there is a shared resource, such as a pasture, each user will use as much as they can, leading to radical depletion. While, ironically, this call to privatization has become a central tenet of the environmental movement it has been shown to be incorrect. The main error that is relevant to our discussion of NYC parks is the idea that communities cannot self regulate. The work of Elinor Ostrom carefully makes this point (it is worth looking up both her work and “the fallacy of the tragedy of the commons”).

Our interest in this issue is what it means to call a space “public” and how can actual communities determine how a place is used. “Public” space is never a collectively determined space. It is better thought of as a space available for trivial social activities (strolling, bench sitting, and people watching). But what does it mean when people wish to determine how they are part of the world? The concepts of public and private fall short here. We would like to suggest that we need to re-engage with the idea of the commons. While the commons is well understood in a classical sense of the old village commons, or in the sense of big shared resources, how does a place become a commons? What is most interesting is that a commons is not what pre-exists — but it is what is made. People negotiate commons into being. And in reality it is more than people who negotiate a commons into being — other species are always involved… For us the question is simple: how does Central Park (or Zucotti Park) become an emergent multi-species commons? Perhaps this begins less by protest and more by an interspecies curiosity and meeting?

Let us forage a commons into being!