Elinor Ostrom, Nobel-prize winning political economist, died on June 12, 2012. That same day, a mother turtle pulled her way out of the Rideau River, and made her nest on the river bank.
A turtle's idea of a good nesting place is somewhere with soft, loose earth, sand or gravel. For an urban turtle, that means, say, a playground sandbox, or some freshly-turned up earth on a construction site. The turtle pictured made her nest on nice bit of fresh gravel right beside a road, just off a popular dog-walking trail.
A turtle nest can be seen as a common property resource. A long tradition in economic thought argues that such resources will inevitably be neglected, untended, and over-exploited. Turtle eggs will be dug up by dogs, trampled on by careless walkers, or harvested by people dedicated to eating local, organic produce - the tragedy of the commons.
As if moved by Professor Ostrom's spirit, the local community acted together to protect the turtle eggs. The nest was fenced off, and do not disturb signs put up. All of the dog walkers, joggers and local residents watched the nest carefully.
It was an anxious time. It looked as if perhaps some dog had been digging at the nest. It seemed as if the eggs would never hatch. But today, they did - and at least two found their way back to the water.
Elinor Ostrom described how to design institutions to manage common pool resources. They have to be able to establish boundaries (the fence), monitor the use of the resource (all of the dog walkers, watching other dog walkers), have sanctions for people who over exploit the resource (the shame of being known in the local community as a turtle-nest disturber), and so on.
The turtles show that Elinor Ostrom was right - communities can manage common property resources. The real challenge is to scale up institutions for managing common pool resources - to go beyond little neighbourhoods managing snapping turtles, and find ways to solve large-scale challenges: managing parks, watersheds, the global environment.