What if We Treated Land Differently?

“Solving the land question means the solving of all social questions.”
– Leo Tolstoy

Having studied sustainability for some 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to examine many so-called “intentional communities.” These are typically founded by groups of people that, for various reasons, decide to try and create their own community from houses, to land, to businesses. However, most are lacking a solid economic component (called the working environment). Having environmentally sound homes and surrounding yourself with people who love the earth as much as you do will only accomplish so much. In the end, it only serves to create another, although unconventional, neighborhood or subdivision. Granted, that is a step in the right direction, but the overall paradigm hasn’t really been altered. Such communities often have high turnover and difficulty with community management due to the fact that many attempt to operate on a consensus basis, which, as previously mentioned in the post on sociocracy, isn’t that effective or efficient. Furthermore, such places often leave inhabitants struggling to make a living due to the fact that few, if any, of these communities offer any real or lasting economic opportunity.

On the other side of the coin are the even rarer large-scale projects that have been undertaken by alternative or “green” builders. A few communities using all solar power or alternative design have been attempted, and all seem to suffer a similar fate. In nearly every case, the developers had a difficult time selling the homes. The principle of “bad known versus great unknown” seemed to be at work. People are creatures of habit and feel most comfortable with the familiar even if it isn’t in their best interest. It takes incentive to change and, as these developers found out, if people had to live in a subdivision they’d rather live in one they recognized and not some strange alternative. Granted, a lot has changed over the past two decades and people are more open than ever to alternative energies, and greener, more efficient design. However, I can say from first hand experience as a resident of Frisco, Texas (one of the fastest growing communities in the United States for the past 20 years) that traditionally built, cookie cutter subdivisions are still very much the norm.

Thus, the problem remains. How do you get people to make a choice that will improve their quality of life and simultaneously heal the Earth? How would it be possible to create a community with a proper physical environment and a proper working environment, and not have some outside interest (be it a greedy individual or a giant corporation) come in and mess everything up? So long as any and every piece of land can be bought or sold, how can it ever be safeguarded long enough to enact real and lasting change?

To do anything – be it create the physical environment or develop a more holistic working environment – requires a location from which to begin. In other words, land.

Land is a touchy subject for some, especially when it comes to ownership. The idea of private property – of having one’s own private castle or little corner of the world all to themselves – is near and dear to many, especially Americans. It’s interesting to me that modern cultures have the concept of private land, yet our ancestors did not. To this day the concept of private ownership remains alien to indigenous cultures throughout the world. It begs the question, have we evolved or digressed? Are we better than the primitive tribes of the world or have we forgotten something they remember? Private ownership of land hasn’t turned our world into a paradise, except for the few who are able to retreat to their mansions, estates, and private islands. The majority, the working class, are left dealing with our increasingly devastated planet and crumbling infrastructure. What happens if/when the system collapses? Will the wealthy be safe in their private compounds if the global economy or the Earth’s climate spirals out of control? Will average citizens fair any better in our apartments or homes?

Extremist? Maybe, though I don’t think so. Nonetheless it begs the question: How well does private ownership of land really serve the communal good?

“We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
– Aldo Leopold
A Sand County Almanac

Is there a way to have control of land without individual ownership? Would an alternative to private ownership allow opportunities for creating a proper working environment and physical environment that we might not have otherwise? I believe the answer is yes and that it lies in the creation of community land trusts.

“A community land trust (CLT) is a form of common ownership of land in accordance with a charter based on the principles of sustainable and ecologically sound stewardship and use. The land in a CLT is held in trust by a democratically-governed group, while individuals own the improvements created by their own labor and investment. Through an inheritable and renewable 99 year lease, the trust removes land from the speculative market and facilitates multiple uses such as affordable housing, agriculture, and open space preservation.”
E.F. Schumacher Society / Schumacher Center for a New Economics

Thus, the various members of a land trust may come and go but the legal entity remains with full legal rights to oversee the land. This prevents any single individual or outside entity from developing the land without the agreement of the trust.

In the context of a sustainably designed and oriented community, the residents would form a trust and establish the guidelines for the community. The trust would then own all the land. A resident may own his or her own home, but would not own the land underneath it. This would prevent an individual from selling to some outside force. In other words, your neighbor couldn’t sell his plot of land to a fast food chain and take the money and run, leaving you with a burger joint next door. This protects the community as a whole by placing its long-term interests over the short-term interest of individual players (be they individual persons or corporations).

Consequently, community land trusts offer a means of establishing a more sensible and sustainable physical environment. Combined with what has been discussed in previous posts, it is possible to develop a more humane and holistic working enivornement as well. Stated another way, it isn’t unfeasible to create a Mondragon-style cluster of cooperative companies while simultaneously building a large-scale, green, sustainable community.

How? Good question. To create such a place, a conventional development using traditional business models will never work. It would be almost impossible to secure financing for such a novel venture and selling the homes could take forever – meaning that all involved would lose lots of money. Therefore, we have to get creative. It’s time, in the words of Monty Python, “for something completely different.”

To review, cities are subject to boom/bust cycles and forced to play catch up with developers and appease corporations. The whole process of city development is largely unplanned and unchecked due to private ownership of land, the desire for land-owners to make a profit, and the ability of powerful corporations to purchase large tracts for development. It comes down to the ability to guide the ship of state by controlling the economic rudder. Doing so allows residents to determine the future of their community instead of outside interests. Sociocratic, employee owned cooperative companies offer a viable alternative to the destructive forces of corporations operating in a free market where no one takes responsibility or is held accountable for their actions. Companies provide sustainability to a community by replacing imports and developing exports, which keeps local money recycling within the system while capturing money from other markets. Socially responsible banking gives residents control over local funds for use in economic development. Designs and technologies exist that enable the creation of green communities that use far less fossil fuels, integrate harmoniously with nature, and foster interactions among residents. Taken together, the end result of the various pieces is much more than the sum of the parts.

The yin/yang of the physical environment/working environment – ecology/economy – nature/humanity. Image by Tim Wardell.

The core pattern at work is the relationship between the physical environment and the working environment. The two are complimentary forces that can and should work with and through each other (and would if their interdependence was understood and they were properly designed). They cooperate if you will. Make changes to one and you will affect the other and vice versa. I’ve come to believe that, because we are all too human, the economy has to come before the ecology. In order to improve the ecology, the economy must be altered first. The proper working environment must be created before a better physical environment can be created. We must heal ourselves before we can heal the planet.

The solution is simple, yet involves many moving parts.

To begin, create a company that makes a product – any product whose manufacture will not pollute the environment. This company will need workers. Those workers should be employee owners of the company organized according to sociocratic principles. The company will need to purchase land to build a factory. This land should be large enough to accommodate a community of about eight to ten thousand people and should be held in trust by the sociocratically structured employee owned and operated cooperative company. The company could then build homes around the factory so that the employees would not have to commute to work. Since they own the company, and now live right next to it, they would have every incentive to maintain the surrounding environment and will be legally obligated to do so as dictated by the terms of the land trust.

Thus, the community would be built around the factory using sustainable green technologies and methods. Moreover, that factory will need a host of other services – accounting, legal, printing, billing, commissary, etc. All of those needs could be met by other sociocratically organized employee owned businesses. All of the cooperative businesses could be formed into a Cooperative Association styled after the Mondragon model. This association would share a common bank or credit union and oversee the land trust (created by the original company). With ready access to capital, the cooperative companies would have the means to prevent the community from being compromised by outside interests, since they wouldn’t be desperate nor eager to appease another corporation promising jobs in return for massive incentives.

Side Note: The Cooperative Association would, like Mondragon, donate ten percent of its revenues into a community foundation that would provide for arts, culture, and education. A charter school and technical college could be established, funded by the foundation, which could provide quality education that would ensure future generations of skilled workers in the various businesses of the cooperatives.

To continue, the various companies and their employee owners place their money into the Cooperative Association’s credit union as in the Mondragon model. This would quickly create a large pool of money that could only be lent out according to socially responsible criteria established by the depositors – who are also the employee owners of the various companies. This creates a source of capital for starting more new businesses within the community, which would then place more money in the credit union so that more loans can be made. Through this means, the credit union assumes its proper role as a public utility within the community. Its job is to keep money circulating within the community in the same way a water utility ensures that water continues to flow and comes out of the faucet when needed.

As the Cooperative Association and its credit union grow, a variety of local businesses can be interconnected to work with and for each other and begin the import replacement and export development cycle to guarantee their mutual success. In short order, the whole region would stabilize as a vibrant, sustainable economy emerged, one capable of creating better products, providing better services, recycling waste, and conserving resources because there is economic incentive to do so. A whole new ecology will bloom as sprawl is replaced by sensible community design based on sustainable, green principles. The resident employee owners would pay themselves to work for themselves, while providing for themselves, all the while recycling natural and financial resources. The whole process creates money, businesses, and the community.

It’s that simple.

“If Utopia is to emerge, it will do so primarily from the world of business. This only makes sense. When defined as a condition of society as a whole, of an entire culture, Utopia cannot be instituted by an individual or small deviant group; it can only be instituted through our largest, best organized, everyday institutions. Only such large organizations have the structure, the wherewithal, and the motive to provide and demand of their employees the continuing on-the-job training required.”
– M. Scott Peck, M.D.
A World Waiting to Be Born

What would life in such a community be like? What would happen if an entire community created the proper balance between the working environment and the physical environment? What would happen if average citizens quit looking to Washington D.C. or the state capital for answers and began implementing solutions at the local level through constitutionally balanced corporations and community controlled financial institutions? What would happen if we choose to become accountable and solve our own problems by taking control of the economic rudder and guiding the ship of state toward higher goals?

Designed as it is on integrated, systems-thinking, such a Cooperative Community is able to solve nearly all the problems we now face.

The physical environment of the community, whose land is held in a trust, eliminates sprawl, encourages interaction among residents, and fosters a sense of connectivity while preventing unwanted development and the destruction of natural resources by shortsighted interests. The Cooperative Association’s credit union, with its socially responsible guidelines, gives residents control of the economic rudder with which to guide the ship of state through democratically controlled and ecologically sound economic development. The boom bust cycles of cities are alleviated through the healthy import replacement and export development generated by employee owned cooperative companies that work with and for each other to guarantee success and recycle money within the community. These same cooperatives are fully accountable to the community – because the worker/owners are also the residents – and work to sustain the physical environment, thereby eliminating the destruction caused by stockholder corporations whose sole purpose is the pursuit of profits. Via sociocracy, democracy is practiced every single day within the workplace. Those who have to live with the consequences make the decisions. By creating successful companies, the cooperatives have more money to donate to a social fund for investment in the arts, culture, and education of the community. Schools have more reliable funding and therefore better facilities and the arts can flourish. Furthermore, the community is totally unique. No more generica. No more nonsense.

The whole system contains an abundance of feedback loops. Through sociocracy, the workers in every department of every cooperative have a voice and are able to stop bad and/or destructive decisions in their tracks. The various companies work together through the Cooperative Association to ensure that they coordinate their efforts to achieve a dual bottom line – profits for the company (and thus the employee owners) – and a high quality of life within the community.

To be continued…

Tim Wardell is a deep thinker, gardener, husband, father, would-be science fiction sex comedy novelist, and margarita aficionado. When not doing any of those things, he reads, studies, practices, and blogs about sustainability.

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