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How Much Do We Value Public Land?

September 29, 2009

Boston is home to America’s oldest public park known as Boston Common. One of the Common’s earliest functions was as a public space to graze cattle. The land was bought by the city of Boston in 1634 when households were charged six schillings each to collectively buy ‘the commonage.’ By 1646, grazing was restricted to 70 milk cows. . .  but four sheep could be substituted for one cow if so desired. By 1830, grazing was no longer allowed and the Common became largely what it is today, a public space for recreation and enjoyment.

Boston Common (photo via flickr)

Boston Common (photo via flickr)

I’ll just take a moment to try to image the pastoral scene: cows and sheep slowly munching on grass below Beacon Hill. But the Common’s history begs an important question – how much do we value public land today? Would all residents of Boston be willing to pay the inflated equivalent of six schillings to buy another piece of shared land? Even if the answer is yes, what form would this public land take?

Now, there is not a cow or a sheep to be found in the limits of Boston proper. But perhaps we will see agriculture reclaim its place in the city through rooftop farming? Perhaps we will look to new places for public ‘land’ like rooftop gardens, abandoned industrial sites, hydro-farms on floats in the river, or eco-modules built right into building designs?

As the global population grows, and cities became ever more crowded, open green spaces are becoming increasingly important for our health as well as the environment. New public spaces have already begun to sprout up as more people realize the need and appeal of public parks  – just look at High Line in New York, a reclaimed industrial site that is now a green oasis to the many city dwellers and visitors.

Photo via flickr

Photo via flickr

The success of High Line and the continued enjoyment of Boston Common show that we as a culture do value public parks and green spaces. The form of ‘the commonage’ will evolve and may rise to new heights and take on new appearances, but it will still have the same fundamental mission: to give city residents access to communal land.

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