Creating a Community Economy
PCDForum Column #55, Release Date June 25, 1993
by Karen Christensen
Local self-reliance is an important strand in American history. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been, for many years, not simply disappearing, but actively discouraged by an increasingly centralized economy. Several experiences from the community to which I recently moved, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, U.S.A., offer insights into the possibilities of maintaining, even in our modern world, a community economy based on the 'traditional values' so essential to developing an ecological way of living together.
A small town like Great Barrington, with its sense of regional identity and long tradition of cultural activity, offered a strong attraction when I was looking for a new home. I later found that it is also blessed with several local voluntary initiatives organized by the E. F. Schumacher Society and others. These programs are playing an especially important role in strengthening the economic side of rural community life here.
One of these programs, called Self Help for A Regional Economy (SHARE), provides low interest loans to local businesses. The loans are backed with money invested by hundreds of local people, who are involved in making decisions about which projects should receive SHARE loans. They know the people involved and visit the projects to offer encouragement.
Some of the schemes promoted by SHARE involve creating local currencies. After the banks refused a loan to the local sandwich shop to finance a move to larger premises, SHARE encouraged the shop to issue its own notes. Customers bought the notes for $9 before the move and redeemed them, in turkey sandwiches, for their $10 face value after the move.
A similar scheme involves issuing Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes. By accepting these notes, local residents have enabled a number of local farmers to survive the past two winters and thus helped to preserve the quality of life of the larger community.
These schemes, which recognize the potentially beneficial role of trade and commerce in strengthening community, help people engage in mutually useful exchanges within a local economy. Unlike more impersonal exchanges with distant corporations, these transactions involve more than simply making a quick buck to pay for bread and potatoes. They build a sense of sharing and mutual support. The high level of involvement and commitment involved finds expression in many other community activities, such as support for local theater and conservation endeavors.
Community land trusts (CLTs) are another innovative program of the Schumacher Society. Under the CLT approach, people from the community as a whole professionals, farmers, and other interested local people buy parcels of land and place them in a trust managed collectively by the community. This practice is based on the premise that land differs from products created through human effort and should not be privatized. It represents the common heritage of future generations for whom the present generation must hold it in trust. The land is leased to individuals for specific purposes determined to be in the interests of the larger community. The lessees may sell the structures they build on the land, but not the land itself. If improvements in community infrastructure increase the value of the land, the community benefits. Most of the socially and environmentally destructive consequences of private land speculation are avoided. Lease fees are used to buy more land taking it out of the speculative market.
The concept of the Community Land Trust may seem a radical challenge to prevailing notions of private property, but its practice seems quite sensible to people living in small towns who care about community.
The Fund for Affordable Housing is a program launched by two local architects. The Berkshire Mountains offer a popular site for the vacation homes of people from the city. This has pushed local housing prices to levels unusually high for a rural community. Rather than bemoan the presence of the second home owners, the Fund for Affordable Housing pulls them into involvement in the community in a practical way. It raises money from them as low interest loans to back cheaper mortgages for local people.
Efforts to strengthen community in towns like Great Barrington are, in my view, more significant than intentional communities or eco-villages because they allow people to stay in places they cherish. They take an existing society and restructure it in healthy, sustainable ways. The aim is not Utopia literally "no place," an idealized world but what Lewis Mumford called Eutopia "the best place possible."
Karen Christensen is a freelance writer on environmental and lifestyle issues, P.O. Box 177, Great Barrington, MA 01230, U.S.A. This column was prepared and distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum based on her article "In the Name of Community," EcoDesign, Vol. II, No. 1.