Creating a Community Economy

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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.


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