Caring for the commons together - Gill Wood and the Emerson Community

by Steve Briault, Director of Development

How can we build sustainable communities in the Twenty-first Century? How can people live, work and learn together in ways that are socially, environmentally, economically and spiritually healthy? These questions are central to the research task of the newly-constituted Emerson Living and Learning Community.

Initially using the staff housing units and parts of Pixton House, we are creating a residential community on the College site consisting of people committed to supporting each other and the education, and exploring the challenges of anthroposophically-oriented community-building.

As the trend in our adult education programmes moves more towards modular courses where students spend shorter periods on the campus, it is important to balance this with a longer-term, less fluctuating population which can provide continuity and a social vessel to welcome and support those who come and go. So far twelve households have formally joined the Community, plus two on-site organisations, the Foundation for Water and the Robin’s Nest Early Years setting. We hope that more partner organisations may join in due course. The Living and Learning Community includes individuals of all ages – one was born into it two years ago, and several are now in their eighties. The Community has started to meet monthly to build relationships and explore how to approach its task, which for most members is additional to busy lives of family and work both on and off the campus.

One important challenge for modern communities is how to balance the inevitable and necessary forces of individualisation and institutional egoism, in genuine mutuality and collaboration. This challenge is sharpened by the increasing number of separate organisational entities – including households – sharing the site, each with their own aims and needs. A small example of this challenge emerged recently in discussions over the future ownership, use and care of Gill Wood, a lovely area of woodland surrounding the small lake opposite Westwood house. A generous proposal from the Foundation for Water to take a long lease on this area and invest in improving its ecology prompted reactions from other parts of the Emerson community. The area has been used for outdoor story-telling, the creation of “land art”, gathering firewood, and individual rest and reflection by students, staff, visitors and residents. Should one organisation now take full responsibility for and control over the area, or should we find a new associative approach to its stewardship?

What has now emerged is a group that includes people from Visual Arts, the School of Storytelling, the Foundation for Water, Emerson estate staff and Community members, who have committed to shared responsibility, joint consultation and supporting agreed initiatives to integrate the artistic, ecological and spiritual dimensions of how we care for and use the wood and the lake. Initiatives being explored include an ecological survey, further artistic landscaping, the possible installation of flowforms, and the improvement of the aquatic environment. In the light of this, the College is open to transferring the ownership of the area into a new legal body set up to hold properties occupied by members of the Living and Learning Community. What we learn from this venture can be important not only for us – we are undertaking it as active research into how a commonly owned and valued resource can be managed well to combine access with responsibility.

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