What is Common Land?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 05 February 2020
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Common land is land in which a certain class of people has an interest that enables them to use the land for a specific purpose, regardless of who actually owns the land. The notion of common land has historical and modern applications. Historically, common land was important to agricultural societies in Europe and North America, as it granted rights to grazing, hunting, fishing, pasturage, firewood-gathering, and other activities that were crucial to the conduct of life in past centuries. In modern times, the law of commons has come to include parks, reserves, waterways, roads, sidewalks, highways, and jointly owned property that is collectively managed for the benefit of a defined group of people.

The right to the use of common land is a traditional entitlement that pre-dates English common law. Certain traditional rights in land, such as grazing and pasture rights, arose through need and were proven and enforced as a result of common sense and historical usage, rather than through a specific law. Common land rights were an integral part of the territory that became England and Wales, and the notion spread to many former British colonies, including the US and Ireland. Other counties, including Germany, Switzerland, and India, developed their own variations of common land to address the needs of their particular societies.


Common land rights still exist in many countries, but have been gradually reduced in quantity and codified as society has changed. For example, the UK passed the Commons Registration Act of 1965, which defined common land and established a common land registry. In 2006, the UK passed the Commons Act that empowered Commons Councils to manage the remaining tracks of common land. Developing nations in Latin America, India, Asia, and Africa, however, still rely heavily on systems of common land rights to sustainably allocate limited resources in the absence of wealth and civil infrastructure.

In the US, the private ownership of land has largely replaced the system of common land rights. Most notably, this underlying theory is still practiced in the use of land trusts, business improvement districts where the commercial infrastructure is collectively managed for the benefit of the shopping public, neighborhood-managed parks, and other instances of property owned by one entity but with a collective benefit attached to its use. The law of commons is the basis of the state condominium, and cooperative statutes that entitle apartment owners to the collective use of the common areas of a building and its surroundings.


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