Reclaiming the Commons on Gabriola Island


Richard Moore


Gabriola is one of the several small islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. I visited there a few years ago and met some of the people involved in this project, but before the project had started. Thanks to Erik for bringing these latest developments to our attention, in the forwarded message below.

This is one of the most promising community initiatives I’ve seen in some time. I think ‘reclaiming the commons’ gets to the heart of what social transformation is all about. It is the opposite of privatization, it creates a spirit of community, and it facilitates community empowerment. 

In medieval Britain, every village had a commons, where people could graze animals or raise crops. And then came the enclosures, gradually privatizing the commons, first to support the grazing of sheep for wool exports, and later to force people off the land so there would be cheap labor for the factories of the Industrial Revolution. In these historical events we might trace the beginnings of delocalization, globalization, and industrial capitalism. It’s about time these centuries-old trends were reversed. Gabriola seems to be showing us the way forward.

best of luck on this project,


Begin forwarded message:

From: “erik andersen” <•••@••.•••>
Date: 30 September 2009 00:58:12 IST
To: “Richard Moore” <•••@••.•••>
Subject: THE SUSTAINABILITY CENTRE; local developments

Background on the Commons:  The Gabriola Commons is a 26 acre property in the village core of GabriolaIsland which was purchased four years ago by a non-profit society (AGES – The Amazing Grace Ecological Society) with the intention of creating a commons, i.e. neither privately owned nor government managed, but owned and managed in perpetuity by the community of Gabriola for community benefit.  After a number of intensive community workshops a steering committee was formed, meeting every two weeks for over two years to “birth” the Commons.  The steering committee engaged in two main goals:  creating the non-profit society which would be mandated to receive ownership of the property in trust for the community and pursuing the regulatory path toward a new “Commons” zone, working with the Agricultural Land Commission and Islands Trust in the process.   
We are very close to seeing both goals materialize:  the Gabriola Commons Foundation is a non-profit society with charitable status in the process of completing the final stages of the transfer of title and, after two and a half years in consultation with the planners of the Local Islands Trust, a proposal is being made by the planning staff for the creation of a unique “Commons” zone, with community benefit as well as agricultural development as primary purposes.  
Over the past four years a clear understanding of the nature of the Commons has emerged, with a strong agricultural component (we have fenced, irrigated and planted: two orchards, two community gardens and a 30-unit community allotment garden, with plans for planting grains next spring) as well as a broad community focus (supporting everything from the local People for a Healthy Community food depot to local recreational activities to hosting the annual Fall Fair for the fourth year.)  A third aspect of the Commons, based on a deep respect for the ecology of the land, has led to a team of scientists identifying an area of marshland around a large pond to be designated as an ecological reserve.
Of the number of teams that have developed to oversee and manage the burgeoning Commons, the Infrastructure Team is one of the most essential:  developing “Green Building” guidelines which put into practice the strong commitment to sustainability that has figured prominently in the Gabriola Commons Charter and in the covenant (which we are drawing up in conjunction with TLC The Land Conservancy to preserve the property as a community commons.)     
The project :
The Infrastructure Team of the Gabriola Commons is proposing the project for which we would be requesting a grant: a “Sustainability Centre”, intended to research and demonstrate green building practices and alternative energy technology.  This will become an active educational centre inviting a broad audience beyond GabriolaIsland.  
Several threads have come together in the concept of this centre: 

  • As part of a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, the Commons, in conjunction with Island Futures, has taken part in the creation of the Gabriola Public Transit Task Force.  Significant input from a community survey on the Island’s transit needs and a number of public workshops have led to the proposal of a public transit system with small diesel buses fuelled by biodiesel, processed from the waste vegetable oil which the restaurants and pubs have agreed to donate.  BC Transit has given a preliminary report supporting a Gabriola public transit system, with the prospect of financial backing by 2011.  We have agreed that the biodiesel processing unit may be built and operated on the Commons as part of our commitment to exploring and developing alternative energies.
  • An impressive 1000 sq.ft. timber-frame structure will be donated to the Commons, as the culmination of a course in timber frame building by the Island School of Building Arts.  Not only the solid timber elements but also the erection of the structure itself will be donated.  Workshops will be planned to build a living roof (with eventual solar collectors) and infill walls demonstrating a variety of “green” building processes (rammed earth, cob, stack wood etc.)
Summary:  We have a greenhouse-gas reducing project in the processing of bio-fuel from waste vegetable oil (as one step in the development of a public transit system) and we will have an ideal “green” structure in which to house the processing unit and demonstrate its function to a broad interested public.  We will be searching for funding to make this happen for: 
  1.  The installation of the timber frame structure:
     –  the building permit and engineering required for a timber frame structure     
     – concrete for the footings under the posts
     –  metal roofing for a steeper section of roof; a living roof membrane for the                          shallower roof

  2.  The assembly of the elements of the biodiesel processing unit, including               hook-up to existing electrical panel and well nearby. 
The dilemma:   Timing.
We understand that normally the funding we are requesting would be intended for a project only initiated upon reception of the grant.  We do not have the option of waiting, since the structure donated by the ISBA must be erected on October 23 of this year (i.e. as the wrap-up event of the course.) 
Consequently we have agreed at a meeting of the Gabriola Commons Foundation Trustees to offer a short-term loan of the funds needed for the concrete footings and engineering (with the prospect of a partial donation of professional time from the engineer in exchange for a charitable tax receipt.)   This can only be a loan, since the mandate of the Foundation is to achieve ownership of the land in perpetuity for the community.  The various projects emerging on the land must be sustained uniquely through grants and donations of time and money.   
Note:  A brief recap of donations and grants already achieved in support of this project:

  · $7000 has been given by community members in support of the public transit project as donations of the “Climate Action Dividends” issued last summer by the provincial government

  · The Federal Government’s Canada Summer Jobs funding has paid for a student engaged in a two-year course at Vancouver Island University (training technicians in the alternative energy and green building industry) to research and set up the elements of a bio-diesel processing plant during the past summer

  · The structure worth an estimated $25,000 donated by the Island School of Building Arts

  · Hundreds of hours of professional time donated in the planning, surveying, and mentoring of the project