Managing the Urban Commons

34 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2011 Last revised: 12 Dec 2012

Date Written: November 14, 2011


Over the past several decades, debates about the appropriate tools of commons management have played themselves out in a particularly illuminating way in the management of urban public spaces. Some commentators urge, a là Garrett Hardin, that government coercion is needed to restore order to the urban commons. Others urge the privatization or quasi-privatization of urban public-spaces. On the ground in American cities, these theoretical arguments have been translated into concrete policies, especially policing strategies (e.g., order-maintenance and community policing) and urban development strategies (e.g., business improvement districts). This is an opportune time to reexamine the commons-management questions raised by these policies. The current economic crisis is forcing cities to scale back law enforcement efforts, as well as limiting the financing available to fund sublocal investments in urban public spaces. It is possible that these pressures will lead the current urban-commons compromise to unravel — leading to less public regulation of urban public spaces, more pressure for private regulation, or both. Using these tensions as a starting point, this Essay, which was written for a Pennsylvania Law Review symposium on “New Dimensions in Property Theory,” reflects critically upon the optimal regulation of urban public spaces as well as the possibility of cooperative commons management arising in the absence of government coercion.

Keywords: Order maintenance, broken windows, business improvement districts, privatization, urban, public spaces, commons

JEL Classification: H7, H82, K11, O1, O2

Suggested Citation

Garnett, Nicole Stelle, Managing the Urban Commons (November 14, 2011). Essay for the November 2011 University of Pennsylvania Law Review Symposium on “New Dimensions in Property Theory” 160 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 1995 (2012), Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 11-44, Available at SSRN:

Nicole Stelle Garnett (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556
United States
574-631-3091 (Phone)


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