End-of-term euphoria?  I hope not.

On 21 July, the day after parliament closed for the summer, the environment secretary Michael Gove gave a surprisingly good speech.  He was addressing ‘stakeholders’ at the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Centre in Woking, Surrey.

He started by quoting Philip Larkin (Going, Going).  He said that in the 45 years since that was written we had lost much of our natural world, here and across the globe, and that we need to take the right environmental action to curtail this loss.  He spoke glowingly of environmental organisations (though only mentioned the big ones), and praised their ‘campaigning energy and idealism’.

Emotional attachment
He recognised the importance of the uplands and mentioned how he grew up ‘between the North Sea and the Cairngorms, spending weekends in the hills and weekdays with my head in Wordsworth and Hardy, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Edward Thomas’ and he avowed ‘an emotional attachment to natural beauty’.

He said that our departure from the European Union gives us a historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodland etc—he made a long list.  He wants to ensure that the £3 billion currently paid to farmers will provide environmental benefits.  But here’s the rub: astonishingly he didn’t mention recreation and access in his speech.  Yet public benefit must include public enjoyment and utility, and a significant proportion of that £3 billion should be invested in more paths, more freedom to roam and better-quality access where people will benefit most—close to their homes.

Wildflower meadow near Covey Hall Farm, Otley

We have to hope that this speech wasn’t just end-of-term high spirits and that Michael Gove has opened the door to discussions on how we can ensure that public money really does provide more and better public access.

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A magnificent setting

One of the most enjoyable features of the International Association for the Study of the Commons conference in Utrecht was the magnificent setting.

Many of the conference sessions were held in the majestic Academiegebouw, on the Domplein (the cathedral square).

14 registration


From the upstairs windows you can see the Dom tower, the statue of Graaf Jan Van Nassau (bishop elect of the bishopric of Utrecht, 1267-90), and the Jelling stone (a tenth-century carved runestone from Jelling in Denmark).

View from window

View from upstairs window of statue of Graaf Jan Van Nassau


Jelling stone

The Jelling Stone

I went to the members’ meeting, the European regional meeting and the lectures by the Elinor Ostrom prizewinners in the Senaatszaal (Senate hall), surrounded by hundreds of portraits of the university’s academics.

senate room


At first glance they are all men, but then I found a woman among them.


A rare woman

In fact there are three women, added in 2012 and unveiled on 8 March, International Women’s day.

I led a practioners’ lab in Zaal 1636, one wall of which was devoted to women professors.

Women's room

The women’s room

The opening ceremony was held in the Domkerk, St Martin’s cathedral.


Opening ceremony in the Domkerk

The keynote lectures and closing ceremony were in the spacious, airy Janskerk which was founded shortly after 1040 and has brass reliefs on the floor.



Janskerk brass relief

Brass relief in Janskerk

Registration was in the auditorium which, in 1579, hosted the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht.



Coffee and lunch breaks were in the Pandhof, the monastery garden of the Domkerk, surrounded by cloisters.



Above each arch is a carving which tells a story, and there is a key to them on a board in the garden.  On one, the architects added a rope as a joke.

Pandhof rope

Architects’ joke

You can find more information about the university buildings here.








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Our part of town

When I first made my way across Utrecht to my student accommodation on the east side of town I felt rather irritated.  The main activity of the International Association for the Study of the Commons conference was in the heart of the city and it felt like we were some way off.  

We had to take the number 8 bus to reach the accommodation, in the former Kromhout military barracks.  The first time, luggage laden, it seemed quite a trek. In fact, the surroundings were a delight and the distances not great.


College Hall


Entrance to Kromhout former barracks







We were close to the Reitveld Schröder House, designed by Gerrit Reitveld in 1924 on the principles of De Stijl (Dutch for ‘the style’).   Reitveld built the dwelling for Mrs Truus Schröder-Schräder and her three children. She asked for the house to be designed preferably without walls.  It is now a World Heritage Site.

1 Rietveld Schroder Huis

Rietveld Schröder House

The house is just to the west of a motorway underpass, which is decorated with tiles of blue chairs, to reflect Reitveld’s red and blue chair.

4 viaduct 2

3 viaduct

The mosaic is called ‘Sitting in Blue’ and is by Margot Berkman and Eline Janssens.  It cheers up what would otherwise be a dreary walk.

2 viaduct plaque

As you emerge from the underpass, the road Erasmuslaan is on your left with two Rietveld apartment buildings.  These were built after the above-mentioned house, as a social-housing experiment, and are examples of Nieuwe Bouwen (‘the new movement’).

5 Erasmuslaan

This year is the centenary of De Stijl and the city is celebrating with activities under the banner ‘Mondriaan to Dutch design’, with stickers in windows and replicas of the red and blue chair in public places.  They are ideal for children’s play.  Piet Mondriaan lived in Utrecht between 1872 and 1880.

red and blue chair

Replica of the red and blue chair. Photo: John Powell

The street close to my accommodation proved to be a lively one.  It was highlighted in a tourist pamphlet Mag Utrecht with a spread ‘Meet the street: Jan van Scorelstraat’.

The best spot was Noen, a cheerful café which my colleague John Powell and I frequented for breakfast.  There were comfy, cushioned chairs inside and out.  Our hostess, Tanja van Ballegooijen, was willing to provide excellent strong coffee and yoghurt with granola and maple syrup—before her official opening time of 8 am.


Strong coffee

John and granola

John enjoys yoghurt and granola


Bright and early: Tanja van Ballegooijen tots up the bill. Photo: John Powell

From here we could see the bus stop (we tended to take the bus in the mornings because the conference started early).  Only the number 8 called here.  Although we couldn’t read the number of minutes on the bus-stop sign from this distance, we could tell when the due time reached single figures and we must get going.

From Noen

The bus stop is visible on the right, from the Noen café

There was often a crowd of our fellow conference-goers at the bus stop and it was an enjoyable ten-minute ride into town.

Bus arrives

At the bus stop

On the bus

On the bus

Although our student accommodation wasn’t the best, it was inexpensive and we were in a fun part of town.

See also John Powell’s blog on the Countryside and Community Research Institute website.

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Bikes rule in Utrecht

While is it admirable that so many Dutch people cycle instead of drive, it can be difficult for pedestrians to know where they can safely walk.

In Utrecht there were bikes everywhere.  The bike park at the central station tells the story.

BIkes at station

Two-tiered bike park at central station

People tend to transport all sorts of things on their bikes, including carts containing their children.  It is interesting that no one seems to wear a helmet.


At junctions, bikers get preference, and pedestrians can wait for up to three minutes for a green light (I timed it).

Right hand lane

When this is lit up, cyclists can turn right on a red light

While there are bike lanes (coloured red), they can take up most of the sidewalk leaving no space for walkers, especially where the cafés are also occupying the pavement.

No sidewalk

No space for walkers

In some places, such as next to Janskerk, the space is very tight.


Walkers are squeezed at Janskerk

In the city centre the bike lanes were not marked on the ground and it was quite perilous walking from the bus stop at Janskerkhof to the Domplein, where I was normally heading, with bikes cutting across.


Unclear where walkers can go safely

I felt that a little more information, and a little more respect for pedestrians would be helpful.  Certainly walking in the city centre is not an entirely peaceful experience because you have to watch out.  Perhaps the Dutch understand it all, but for a visitor it was unclear.

Ironically, I was at an international conference about commons, ie shared space, but it did not seem that the street space in Utrecht was being shared very fairly.

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Defending the forests

At the opening ceremony of the conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), at the impressive Domkerk in Utrecht, the IASC president, John Powell, presented the Elinor Ostrom award on collective governance of the commons (the practitioners’ award) to Pedro Agustín Medrano of the Asociación Forestal de Soria.  This is a province in Spain, north-east of Madrid.

The award was in recognition of some of the innovative work currently being undertaken to manage the commons resources of the Spanish forests.  This is the same award which the Open Spaces Society won in 2013.

The Award, was created to honour and develop the legacy of Elinor Ostrom.  It aims to acknowledge and promote the work of practitioners (campaigners), young scholars, and senior scholars who are involved in the field of the commons.

Joshua John Pedro

Joshua Cinner, winner of Ostrom Award for young scholars, John Powell and Pedro

Presenting the award to Pedro, John explained that Asociación Forestal de Soria was set up in 1988, to provide support for forest commons in the province of Soria, Spain.  The forest commons were originally used by local inhabitants, but then were sold by the government between 1855 and 1924 to individuals and became part of big estates; the villagers were disenfranchised and the commons were abandoned.


Spanish commons.  Asociación Forestal de Soria

The Asociación developed a new governance approach, whereby local communities collectively bought the commons and now manage them through co-ownership and self-government.  In 2003 the Asociación was instrumental in the adoption of legislation and the organisation now works in partnership with the Spanish Ministry of the Environment to manage the commons for the benefit of local people, securing access to the commons for the long term.

The Asociación has shown great tenacity and ingenuity in achieving this new governance model, overcoming significant opposition.   It is an example of a new form of collaboration and institutional design that today represents more than 10,000 people holding 80,000 hectares of forest land.   The project has fundamentally affected people’s lives and has reunited them with their commons.

Roll of paper
Pedro had with him and impressive roll of paper on which were listed all those who had rights on the commons in one community, with the first generation in the left-hand column, and successive generations in the columns on the rights.

detail 2


The roll itself extended for a whole room.  It was easy to see how abandonment had led to fewer people on the commons in the current generation.

Pedro kneeling

Pedro kneeling

It is an emotive document, and one which generates family stories; Pedro explained how the children were fascinated by it and wanted to learn about their predecessors.

Pedro says that, since he posted the story about the award on the association’s website he has had over 60,000 ‘likes’.  That’s quite an achievement.

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The energy of practitioners

The gap is closing between academics and practitioners (activists) in the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).

In the last nine years I have been to six IASC biennial conferences (Cheltenham, England; Hyderabad, India; Kitafuji, Japan; Edmonton, Canada and Utrecht in the Netherlands), and two regional conferences (Umeå, Sweden and Bern Switzerland).  At all of them since Cheltenham (where I was completely new to IASC) I have expressed my strong belief that, to remain relevant to a wide audience, IASC must embrace the practitioners (including campaigners) who are working on commons.  Practitioners and researchers need each other.  The scholars provide the independent evidence and analysis to support the practitioners’ actions.

The IASC’s founder, the late Elinor (Lin) Ostrom, appreciated the role of practitioners and at the last few conferences there has been recognition of their work, not least with the presentation of the Ostrom Award to practitioners.  Of the 700 attending the Utrecht conference, 150 are practitioners, and some are running practitioners’ labs to promote discussion about their work.

Phenomenal link
Already at this conference much has been said about and by practitioners.  The Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University, Bert van der Zwaan, said at the opening ceremony on 10 July: ‘Where governments are stepping back, privatisation is increasing and collective action is more important. … There is a phenomenal link between academics and practitioners.  Students are taking action for the future—that’s how it should be.’


Opening ceremony

Later that day, at the IASC members’ meeting, there was talk about how IASC could do more for practitioners.  It was suggested that IASC might be a matchmaker between academics and practitioners, since it is difficult for each to locate the other working in a similar field.  One contributor to the debate said: ‘This organisation needs the energy of practitioners’.

It is increasingly evident that a hard distinction between practitioners and academics is a false one.  I went to a practitioners’ lab where we discussed games for collective action, whereby field workers encourage communities to play games which help them gain information about managing the commons: deciding which crops to grow and how to manage water, for instance.  The researchers are helping people to achieve beneficial and sustainable outcomes, blurring any distinction between academics and activists.


Foundation for Ecological Security

When registering at the conference we picked a lanyard to reflect our role—green for academics, blue for practitioners.  Some dithered, wondering which lanyard to choose—for many are both practitioner and academic, or they have switched from one to the other.  Some, such as Ruth Meinzen Dick from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the USA and Jagdeesh Rao from the Foundation from Ecological Security in India, took both.


Both researcher and practitioner: Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Jagdeesh Rao

Things are changing: at this conference we are distinguished by the colour of the lanyards, but next time (Lima, Peru in 2019) I suspect that the sessions will be more integrated, so that practitioners and academics really are recognised as interdependent. The progress is encouraging.

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First day in Utrecht

After only a day I felt at home in Utrecht in the Netherlands.  I arrived a complete stranger at central station, got lost in the vast shopping mall (which seems to have no exit signs—is this deliberate?) and eventually found my way out and into a taxi.

I am here for the biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).  I am staying in student accommodation on the south-east side and take the number 8 bus from there to the centre.  It is a small city and I can walk between the centre and my room.  On Sunday I explored the route into town through Wilhelmina Park.

6 Wilhelmina Park

Wilhelmina Park

There is a statue of the eponymous queen, well wrapped-up for winter.

7 Queen Wilhelmina

Queen Wilhelmina

There was a busy street-market in the Burgemeester Reigerstraat, and the road was closed for the day.

11 street market

Road closure for street market

First impressions of Utretch: mixed architecture (ancient, modern, indifferent and ugly).  Green spaces, canals, bikes everywhere, friendly people, slow service in cafés—but a fun place to be in.

10 bikes


The city is the fourth largest in the Netherlands and was founded in Roman times.  About 2,300 years ago it was at the northern front-line of the Roman Empire.  The Roman army constructed a fortress close to a crossing of the Rhine; this was called Traiectum, whence comes the name Utrecht.  Metal strips across the road show the Roman forts and watercourses.

15 drain

Roman watercourses

The Anglo-Saxon priest and missionary, Saint Willibrord, founded two small churches here.  After 690 the importance of Utrecht increased and it became a bishopric from the ninth century onwards.  In mediaeval times several churches and monasteries were founded, the walled areas covering a substantial part of the city centre.

13 map in church

Map of Utrecht in the late middle ages, which hangs in the Domkerk

Utrecht’s landmark is the Dom tower, 112-metres high, which is the tallest structure in the city although it faces competition with new buildings.

Dom tower

The tower was originally part of the Domskerk, started in 1321 and completed in 1383.  The nave of the church was destroyed by a tornado in 1684 and, believing this was an act of god, the people decided that they should not rebuild it.

22 church in 1580

The church and tower in 1580

23 church in 1674

The church and tower in 1647








Later they removed the damaged portion of the church, and the church and tower have remained separate.  A wall hanging shows how the church might have looked.

12 sodomy statue

The Domplein (church square) on the site of the former church.

I climbed the 465 steps, 95 metres to the top of the tower for a view of the city and beyond, over the flat lands to the buildings of Amsterdam and Rotterdam on the horizon.

19 view to Amsterdam

Looking north to Amsterdam on the horizon


The bell chamber is particularly impressive, with 14 bells of different sizes.  Each has a name and a gothic inscription which tells a story.

18 Bell story

Bells: Maria’s story

The oldest bells, dating from 1505, have a clapper like an apple core.  They are marked M to indicate that they would have been the last to be melted down to provide armaments in the Second World War: fortunately none had to be sacrificed.

17 Ancient bell

One of the oldest, marked M

On the next storey up is the carillon of bells, restored in 1972 with 50 bells.

Utrecht is surrounded by water: the Rhine and a number of canals originating from mediaeval time. The Oudegracht (the old canal) runs through the centre and parts of it are the old bed of the Rhine.


20 canal


The conference is based at the university in the heart of the town at the Academiegebouw which is on the square (Domsplein) next to the Domkerk.

21 Academiegebouw


We are in the heart of this ancient city within the sound of the Dom tower’s carillon which, every 15 minutes, plays a little tune.

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