Admittedly, we use the phrase common ground a lot. But what exactly do we mean when we use this phrase?
On the one hand, the phrase can sound idealistic. But if we explore the meaning we can gain clarity on the objective of our work. Certainly, individuals can own property -- and should. Your yard is yours, not your neighbors. On the other hand, what you do with your yard can have an impact on your neighbor. Maybe for good, maybe for bad. If we do not consider the impact … well, that sort of proves the point of why this idea of common ground is important.
Certainly, zoning ordinances and regulations can serve to protect civil liberties. You can’t build your addition onto your neighbor’s yard. But laws and regulations can only take us so far. Laws are just until we realize they come up short of true justice. And when laws are deemed not just enough they can be amended. Common ground, like justice, democracy, or enlightenment is not actually something that is ever achieved or found. It is only in our pursuit of these ideals that we find their meaning. In our pursuit of democracy, we are democratic. In our pursuit of justice, we are just. Likewise, in our pursuit of common ground, we stand together.
The center of common ground is relationships. Our relationship to the land. To adjacent landowners. To the ecology of a place and the biological systems that support life as we know it. Ultimately, a law cannot replace a relationship, as best as we try. Despite what the lawyers tell us, a contract is not a relationship. Neither is a zoning ordinance.
Laws, democracy, and civil liberties seem to be breaking down all around us. This further suggests our position that only when in relationship with one another, the land, and our shared environment can we actually have a conversation that will work toward a mutually beneficial outcome. This is the conversation we desire to be a part of.
Is it possible to develop land, or conserve land, and to work with adjacent land owners, local governments, and communities toward successful outcomes? Many would say no. The system is encumbered, painful, and arduous (on a good day).
But that is not how we see it. We believe it is possible to obtain successful outcomes. We've done it. Our experience suggests it is possible to the degree to which we enter into relationship and work toward common ground.
More than a literal understanding of land-ownership, common ground is a framework which acknowledges the shared nature of our existence. Our reliance on each other and on the land which supports us.
It has been said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, which is to suggest that we all operate within a climate, a symbiotic system that is not discriminatory. It gives itself away equally and fully. So too, can we, as professionals who engage in the work of shaping towns and places, promote an understanding that this work is done in the spirit of the commons.