Tag Archives: Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom

Sidewalk Accountability and Parking Property Rights

While the latest installment of DC’s record-breaking winter snow has passed over the area, the mountains of snow lining streets and piled on sidewalks appear to be here to stay for the time being. These problems, unusual this far south, are testing residents’ patience with their neighbors.

DC law states that residents are responsible for clearing the snow from sidewalks on their property, but the monumental task that this poses after two major storms has left some unwilling or unable to face up to the task.  The Washington Post discusses the problem:

It was fully 48 hours since the flakes of Snowmageddon had ceased falling, but by midday Monday, many residents and merchants in Adams Morgan still had not cleared their portions of public walkways, disregarding the District’s law mandating that property owners clear snow and ice from their sidewalks within eight hours after the snowfall’s completion.

Through the Mid-Atlantic, rules regarding sidewalk shoveling vary from the mere expectation of courtesy to fines up to $100 for homeowners and business owners who do not do the right thing.  While these municipal rules vary in how well they encourage citizens to maintain sidewalks, this issue might be better dealt with at a neighborhood rather than a city level.

In Understanding Institutional Diversity, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom examines community-based efforts for solving collective action problems like sidewalks covered in snow. She suggests that shunning can be very effective in encouraging community members to follow rules. Imagine being publicly embarrassed at a neighborhood meeting for failing to shovel your walks in a timely manner.

Robert Nelson of the Mercatus Center explains in Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government that the rise of private Neighborhood Associations is helping localities deal more effectively with such collective action problems.  

In another snow-related economic conundrum, vehicle owners struggle to protect their rights to parking spaces that they have laboriously shoveled.  In Boston, drivers can legally save their cleaned spots with lawn chairs or cones, but no such official rule exists in DC. However, an unscientific Washington Post poll found that 76% of respondents favored the right to reserve parking spots, effectively suggesting that the effort of shoveling is worth a guarantee of property rights.

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom at Mercatus Today

For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, 2009 Economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, the co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, will be speaking today at a Mercatus Center panel discussion entitled “Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School.”

Registration for the event is now closed, but it will be livestreamed on the web at 4 PM.

In October, Emily Washington wrote about what Dr. Ostrom’s Nobel means for those interested in state and local government and governance and resource management:

Ostrom is most notable for her work related to collective action and common pool resources. In contradiction to the Tragedy of the Commons hypothesis developed by Garrett Hardin, she notes that informal social institutions can arise to maintain pooled resources successfully over time. Ostrom has focused on examples of people creating systems for sustainable natural resource management with the ecosystems that they depend on such as forests and fisheries.


While the idea of a top down authority to manage neighborhood affairs may sound more methodical and efficient than allowing spontaneous order and properly aligned incentives to direct common resource management, Ostrom’s work suggests that Robert Nelson’s policy prescription of Residential Improvement Districts may go much further toward optimal neighborhood governance than top-down city planning authorities.

Paul Dragos Aligica wrote about the prize here, and Peter Boettke wrote about it here.

Anyone with questions about the event can call Megan Mahan at 703-993-4930 or email her at mmahan@gmu.edu.