Engaging the power of the Commons

Engaging the power of the Commons
Clapton Circle, Carer's Common room at the Coop Fair, Dalston Hackney. June 2023

Clapton Common, where our new project takes place, is situated in Upper Clapton, a neighbourhood defined by a breadth of cultures including the largest strictly Orthodox community in Europe. Many of the shared resources and services that residents of Upper Clapton rely upon are owned and managed by either private companies or the state: Springfield Park, Clapton Overground Station, Lime Tree Court Sheltered Housing or the water utility company all fall into one of these two categories of ownership.

These forms of ownership and governance have become so pervasive in the UK that it has come to shape how we see the locality and our relationship to it. Private or public ownership is not however the only way that the resources and services can be owned and managed. Shared resources or services can be collectively owned and managed by the very people that use them for a common good rather than private interest or profit.

The paradigm of the commons

The word “Common” in Clapton Common represents a different kind of relationship between a community and a valued resource. The strip of grassland that we refer to as Clapton Common is a common good, which we are all free to enjoy. In Feudal England, before the days of local authorities and public services, local tenants were free to use this “wasted” or uncultivated land for their own purposes, such as pasture and firewood. Operating outside of the feudal system, people self-organized to manage and share this “Common” for their mutual benefit.

Sean Ferguson, Clapton Common

Contemporary researchers on the concept of 'the commons', David Boillier and Silk Helfrich, have recognised it as a paradigm of ownership with unique cultural, economic and political significance. According to their research, understanding this pardigm in it’s richness and complexity involves exploring three key domains:

  1. Provisioning: ways of making and using something together or pooling resources.
  2. Peer governance: methods for making decisions, problem-solving and formulating rules and protocols together, transparently and openly.
  3. Social life: ways of coming together, supporting one another, and organising.

Significantly, a commons arises not only when people start pooling resources and sharing stuff but when they also develop a system for making decisions, setting boundaries, enforcing rules, and dealing with conflict. This system of governance is not devised and imposed on the community by an external authority but is developed by the people making and or using a shared resource themselves. Voluntarily adopting and applying these social protocols in the ongoing management of a shared resource is called “peer governance”.

A commons  = Community + Shared Resource + Social Protocols

In Boiler and Helfrich's view, a commons refers not only to a shared resource but also to the structures and processes that communities use to collectively manage a shared resource. This makes the commons an explicitly social and cultural phenomenon. The identity of each commons is entangled in its geography, buildings, history, and leaders. Commons can form strong social bonds as people come to depend upon one another as they get to know and experience the management of a resource they value.  A commons arises whenever a community develops social protocols to manage a shared resource in a collective manner, a process Boiler and Helfrich refer to as “commoning”.

Commoning in Upper Clapton

Commoning has a long history in Clapton and is happening, in various forms and to varying degrees in local neighborhoods now.  Each of these commons is unique, evolving as a community draws on common stories, values and traditions to address any shared problems and needs that relate to a specific resource.

Robin Hood Community Garden

In March 2010, local residents convinced the Hackney Council that an overgrown and unused piece of land at the bottom of Spring Hill should be restored for the benefit of all. Community members pooled their resources to transform this space into Robin Hood Community Garden. Whilst the land is still officially owned by the Hackney Council the space itself is run by a self-organising community of local gardeners.

Robin Hood Community Garden

Oldhill School Food Bank

Further up the hill another group of local residents and organisations pooled their resources to set up a Food Bank. Oldhill School offered a space and several local parents set it up. For over one year now volunteers from local community networks have been running this community service.

Oldhill School Community Food bank

The Warm Welcome, St Thomas Church

In the winter of 2022 a warm welcome space was set up every Wednesday in response to the heating and eating crisis in the UK. This space offers hospitality, warmth and a hot meal to local residents in a community on the common. The warm welcome is hosted by St Thomas Church, coordinated by the community builder of a local community organisation called Clapton Commons and delivered and managed collectively by a group of local residents and activists. This temporary space is in the process of becoming a sustainable community service collectively managed by the people giving and receiving support in the longer term.

A Warm Welcome at St Thomas Church

Alcoholics Anonymous, Clapton

Commoning does not always involve sharing physical things, it can involve people sharing their time, knowledge, personal experiences, and insights for a common good. Some residents of neighbourhoods in Clapton Common provide peer support through Alcoholics Anonyous. Members of Alcoholic Anonymous are part of a peer to peer network of people committed to their own and one another’s sobriety and spiritual growth. Meetings attended by local residents, either online or face-to-face, are run by self-organised groups according to mutually agreed upon protocols.

The kitchen cupboard in the staff common room

In a sense, commoning is also happening every day in staff rooms in offices or schools all over Clapton (although on a much smaller scale!) Staff are sharing and collectively managing a stock of tea, coffee, sugar and milk. There will also be shared expectations of how this stock is used and replenished. For example, the person who finished the milk needs to replace it, or those who use this stock must leave a little donation in the jar. There may also be an agreement that the milk must be used for tea and coffee only - NOT cereal! These protocols are often asserted with post-it notes on cupboard doors, and sometimes enforced with a little public shaming of repeat offenders!

The above example sounds a little trivial, however, this form of commoning has a huge impact on people's sense of community. What does an empty tea cupboard or an unwillingness to share and pool these things say about the social life of an office or school? This example illustrates how commoning creates communal life. The changes that a staff room tea and coffee cupboard undergoes over time, in terms of cupboard contents and the systems employed to manage it, plot different chapters of an organization's social history and culture. This tells us that commoning isn’t like an on/off switch, something that either exists or does not exist: like a dimmer switch on a light, it is more a matter of intensity. The intensity of various kinds of commoning can be weak or strong, according to what people do. This means we can all affect the process.


During a recent interlink cultural awareness training day, members of the Clapton Circle visited several organizations that provide care and support to members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Upper Clapton and Stanford Hill. Hatzola, was an outstanding organization that embodies the principles of commoning in its operation and service to the community. Hatzola, which means "rescue" or "saving" in Hebrew, is a volunteer-based emergency medical service that operates within Jewish communities worldwide. Its roots can be traced back to the early 1960s when the Jewish population in Hackney, London, began to grow significantly. In the early days, the Jewish community in Hackney faced challenges in accessing prompt medical assistance during emergencies. Response times from mainstream emergency services were often delayed due to various factors, including language barriers and unfamiliarity with the specific needs and customs of the Orthodox Jewish community. A group of dedicated individuals within the community came together, identified the problem, and collectively decided to establish a volunteer-based emergency medical service.

Hatzola Hackney began with just a few volunteers, primarily local doctors, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians, who were willing to respond to calls around the clock, seven days a week. They underwent specialised training to cater to the specific needs of the Orthodox Jewish community to ensure volunteer members worked to high standards of emergency medical care.

This is a model of peer production that fosters a strong sense of ownership and responsibility within the community. Following principles of collective governance, the organization's leadership and decision-making involve active participation from volunteers and community members, ensuring that the service remains responsive to the community's needs and values.  Hatzola is deeply embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the Orthodox Jewish community in Hackney. The organization's volunteers are well-versed in the customs, traditions, and religious sensitivities of the community, ensuring that emergency medical care is provided in a culturally sensitive manner. This social and cultural embeddedness strengthens the bonds of trust and solidarity within the community, fostering a sense of common purpose and responsibility for each other's well-being.

The services provided by Hatzola are free, relying on voluntary contributions from community members and fundraising efforts. Hatzola's commitment to saving lives and serving the community without any financial gain motive places it firmly in the ethical economy. This helped secure strong support from the local Jewish community who helped fund its growth. Charity events, and donations from community members allowed Hatzola to acquire better medical equipment, training resources, and vehicles to enhance its services. Hatzola Hackney expanded its operations and gained recognition and respect within the larger emergency services community. They collaborated closely with mainstream ambulance services, sharing knowledge and resources to provide better emergency care to all residents of the borough. Hatzola's openness to learning and cooperating with others exemplifies the spirit of commoning, where shared resources are managed collectively for the greater good.

Interlink Cultural Awareness Training, Upper Clapton

Uncovering invisible patterns of commoning

Seeing examples of commoning already happening in Clapton helps us identify some of the ways we can stimulate commoning within and between local groups to realise our vision of a commons-based model of care in Clapton.

The state of the tea and coffee cupboard in the common room our group use reminds us that commons start small and that building a culture of commoning begins in our place of work.

Local community gardens, with their DIY culture, commitment to pooling and sharing resources together and emphasis on community well-being remind us that there is a vibrant culture of commoning happening all around us. These community gardens are fertile ground for meeting local people with common purposes and values.

The Warm Welcome team, with its culture of generosity, broad mission of hospitality, and openness to collaboration is playing a central role in helping us form a neighbourhood alliance of like-minded groups and organisations. This alliance, Care in Common, will play a key role in making the local landscape of care and support more visible and accessible to the Equal Care teams we are building.

The surplus of food that is sometimes gifted to Oldhill School Foodbank reminds us that there is an abundance of care and support within our own community, helping us to move out of the toxic mindset of scarcity that lowers our expectations of care and support.

The presence of  Alcoholics Anonymous in Clapton, and its prevalence across the world, reminds us of the resilience and efficacy of peer-to-peer networks organized around a clear sense of purpose and model of care.

Looking to Hatzola, based across the Common,  we are reminded that our vision of a community run and owned service sustained, in part, through a gift economy is not pie-in-the-sky thinking, but can in fact result in a sustainable service that outperforms its conventional counterpart. The plethora of other culturally specific services orthodox Jewish groups have developed in our neighbourhoods remind us how important the relationship between a community and the services they rely on can be. They show us that commoning is a way that communities can reasserte and reconstitute their culture and identity. We can and should use commons-based systems to advance our long-term goals in ways that strengthen our relationships, social systems, and shared values.

Taken together, these examples build a strong case that thinking in terms of the commons can offer us better solutions to some of the challenges that communities currently face, the crisis in social care being one of them. In encompassing social and cultural life, collective governance, and peer production, commons can create social bonds, and systems of administration and management that local authorities, corporations and charities cannot.  If, however, we only see the world according to the either/or binary choice of private/state ownership we will remain unaware of the role communing plays in promoting well-being in communities and its potential to address the greatest challenges we face.


Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (2019). Free, fair, and alive: The insurgent power of the commons. New Society Publishers.

Bollier, D. (2014). Think like a commoner: A short introduction to the life of the commons. New Society Publishers.