To redesign ownership, we need a map.

Why we’ve created the Atlas of Ownership — an open, shared map of property rights and obligations; and a library of solutions that could reshape the economy.

Alastair Parvin
Open Systems Lab


The future doesn’t look quite like we expected it to. Instead of growing prosperity, health, equality and a green industrial revolution, we are confronted by a cascade of crises: housing crisis, poverty, climate refugees, ageing populations, pandemics, loneliness and depression, economic stagnation, broken markets, failing supply chains, overburdened public services and failing trust in democratic institutions.

These crises seem intractable and insurmountable. But it is not because we don’t have the technology, the knowledge, the ingenuity, the money or even the will to tackle them. We do.

The problem lies not in our technology, or our intentions, but in our systems — our ways of organising. Basically, society is running outdated software. We are trying to deploy 21st century solutions using 19th century operating systems – or older. And not surprisingly, when confronted by the technologies and challenges of the 21st century, those systems are failing – in very obvious ways. And yet we remain trapped inside them — and the perverse incentives and vested interests that they create.

And there is one system in particular that sits at the root of almost all of these crises: the property system. How we own land.

Ownership matters

The concept of land ownership is so normal to us that it has become invisible. We just take it for granted. We talk all the time about who owns land, but we don’t really talk about what ownership means.

So what actually is land ownership?

It seems like a stupid question, until you try to answer it. How is it possible to ‘own’ a piece of the earth? No one made land. It was there long before us, and it will be there long after us.

The answer is that ownership — or property — is really just a piece of paper, a legal deed, that confers upon its holder an exclusive set of rights and responsibilities over a place. This is what is referred to in property law as the ‘bundle of rights’ theory.

Since the days of the feudal system, in western property systems those rights have usually included the right to demand rent from others who want to use that land. In effect, the right to extract a tax from people, to charge them for access to something that everyone needs in order to live: space.

So property can be thought of as a form of purchasable power, giving one group of people power over another.

Those purchasable property rights — and the incentives they create — shape almost everything about our lives: our homes, our neighbourhoods, our society, our environment, our economy and our politics. Tell someone about your legal relationship with the place where you live, and they can immediately guess quite a lot about you: your age, your background, your career, your security, your wealth, your health, your wellbeing.

Property rights are also, incidentally, the single largest form of wealth on the planet today. And by a significant margin. Property is not some niche concern. It is the biggest game in town. It pretty much is the town.

Property rights eclipse all other forms of wealth, and yet we don’t really have the language to talk about them. Source: Savills, WEF

So property matters. It shapes our entire lives, it takes the largest share of our monthly income, it absorbs most of our wealth, it shapes the places where we live… and yet we don’t even really have the language to talk about it. It is obscured behind dense legal code.

The Atlas is an experiment to see if it is possible to change that. It is an attempt — in the terminology of Katharina Pistor — to ‘decode capital’.

Unbundling ownership

We actually started working on the Atlas somewhat by accident, while we were working on something else. One of the projects Open Systems Lab (and our collaborators) are working on is called Fairhold. It is a proposal to create a new, open source standard for a type of home ownership that could allow everyone to afford a home, but as a place to live — not as a financial asset.

We will be publishing a full paper about that soon.

But the ideas behind Fairhold aren’t new. They didn’t come from nowhere. The Fairhold standard we are working on draws on models of ownership and tenure that are already being used by Community Land Trusts and city governments around the world.

As we researched these models, something became clear to us. There are thousands of examples of other ways of owning and stewarding land, all of them fascinating. From new, innovative tenure models like those used by Community Land Trusts, or cities in the Netherlands to ancient indigenous traditions, like those of the Brehon tribes in Ireland.

All the problems we are experiencing with our property system have already been solved by someone, somewhere — and yet most people haven’t heard of them, or aren’t aware of how they work.

For example, many people are broadly familiar with the concept of land being owned by the community, but not the rules around how communities then make that land available to individuals. In our day to day lives we use common land (such as parks) all the time, but we don’t really think about how that works.

Even when you have heard of these models, it’s hard to hold them in your head. When we were looking for precedents to show people how established and ‘normal’ these other ways of owning land are, we found that we tended to rely on the same handful of examples.

We began to realise that what we needed — and what the world probably needs — is a library, where we can share these examples.

And that library could also use something else that we had begun to develop as we worked on Fairhold: a way of talking about, documenting and designing the rights and obligations that apply to a property in a modular, high-level way, without having to understand dense paragraphs of legal text.

So, as we researched, we began to ‘unbundle’ property agreements into their basic rights and obligations (or ‘rules’), written as simply as we could. For example:

An example of a pattern: ‘Right to sell’  Holders have the right to sell the property for a capital sum. This might be limited by rules about who it can be sold to, how the property is priced, or the sale process.

We call these ‘patterns’ — that is, a recurring solution to a common problem. So, for example, many of the models we tend to refer to as ownership include the pattern ‘Right to Sell’ — you can sell your title for money. Or, to give a less common example, many property agreements include the transfer pattern ‘Clawback’ — meaning that that if you sell the property for more than you bought it for, any increase has to be shared back with someone, usually the landowner or the previous owner. The exact details and parameters may vary, but that clause appears in many tenure models and property agreements. We can therefore identify it as a ‘pattern’.

A block labelled ‘Property’ is expanded into 8 blocks. They are labelled ‘Eligbility’, ‘Security of tenure’, ‘Access’, ‘Use’, ‘Development’, ‘Stewardship’, ‘Transfer’, ‘Rent’

Each recurring ‘pattern’ can be categorised into one of 8 classes:

Eligibility Who can hold this property agreement? Who can’t?

Security of tenure Can you be evicted?

Access Who can access the land, and for what?

Use What are you allowed to do, or not do, on the land?

Development Can you improve the land and the buildings on it?

Steward In what ways are you responsible for caring for the land, for communities or the wider environment?

Rent What are your rights or obligations in relation to paying rent, or charging others to use the land?

Transfer Can you sell the rights? Can your children inherit them?


In order to ‘unbundle’ property in this way, we had to set ourselves some important principles.

1. Legal mechanism agnostic Each pattern has to be described in a way that is agnostic to the exact legal mechanism or mechanisms being used to agree or enforce it. For example, an entry might include rules that come from legislation, from a contract, or a combination or both. It might be used in jurisdiction which uses common law, or one that uses civil law, or indeed — especially the cases of indigenous models — another ‘customary’ legal or social system. These differences are interesting and important, but they don’t stop us from identifying the common pattern.

2. Any tenure, not just ownership An Atlas entry can be used to describe any set of rights and obligations that applies to a person or legal entity who wants to hold or use it. So not just ‘ownership’, but also a tenancy agreement, or the rights and obligations that apply to a public user of the land in the case of public or common land.

3. An entry = the rights and obligations that apply to someone Each Atlas entry should describe the set of rights and obligations that apply to a one party (who might be a person, an organisation, or a class of people) for a specific property at a specific point in time. This means that there may sometimes be multiple entries for the same property, since property agreements can be stacked (for example, at any one time the same property might have an entry that describes to the rights and obligations of a freehold landowner, another for a leaseholder, another for a tenant, others for any number of sub-tenants and another for members of the public or members of a community (in the case of common land, such as a park). Any or all of these would be valid, separate entries to the Atlas, even though they may all refer to the same piece of property.

A diagram showing the ‘stack’ of agreements that can apply to a property. From bottom to top: sovereign authority, freeholder, leaseholder, tenant, sub-tenant, visitor or occupier
The same piece of property might have several property agreements made over it, all with different rights and obligations. So each of these could be a separate entry into the Atlas.

4. Anonymous is fine The Atlas is not a property register. It doesn’t need to know the names of specific individuals (or even organisations) who are parties to an agreement. It only cares about the rights and obligations that apply to them, or their peers. This also applies to specific addresses. So an entry might be called ‘Flat within the Oakwood Community Land Trust’ — the Atlas doesn’t necessarily care what flat number it is.

5. All frames are imperfect (but some are useful).We have to acknowledge that the framing itself — our system of classification — will not be perfect. Especially ancient or indigenous ways of seeing the world may break it — and this should be welcomed as a good thing, a way to try to understand and learn from other forms of wisdom beyond our own. When a pattern does break the framework, the framework will evolve and learn.

An example of this is the inclusion of ‘stewardship’ as a class. Under a strictly rational, Lockean approach to classifying property rules, any stewardship obligations would probably fall under Use or Development. However, the concept of stewardship is so profoundly central to other worldviews – especially indigenous knowledge systems – that it seems right to give it its own category.

‘Lego blocks’ for property

By breaking property agreements into their constituent parts in this way, we can begin to build up not just a library of entries, but also a library of patterns.

This lets us do some things we couldn’t easily do before:

  • Lower the threshold for participating in the conversation. Most of us can’t speak legalese, but (as we have discovered through our work) almost everyone, including young children, can contribute meaningfully to a conversation about what is and isn’t fair.
  • Allow people to compare models, and see the connections between them. For example, researching modern precedents, or spotting historical parallels.
  • Design new models, by giving us a common language and pool of ideas to draw from, and to check ideas. This will be essential as more and more communities begin to redesign ownership in order to build more successful, resilient, sustainable places.
  • Begin to develop a kind of ‘genome’ for property. That is, a universal library — or pattern language — of building blocks that could theoretically be used to describe all of the ways that humans ‘own’, lease or legally occupy the earth.

How can you contribute?

The Atlas is still very much an experiment. It might not work. It might never have more than thirty or so entries in it — but if they’re useful, that’s fine. We would love to hear any ideas or feedback you have. But the important thing is that it is an open experiment: the information is free for everyone, and anyone can contribute to it.

Here are some of the ways you can contribute:

  1. Share it If you think the Atlas is a cool idea, and you know someone who you think might be interested in it, or who may be able to contribute to it, please share it with them.
  2. Submit an entry You don’t need to be an expert. Your knowledge of an entry might come from being an academic researcher or property expert, or from being a member of one of the organisations involved (for example a Community Land Trust). We would love as many Community Land Trusts as possible to add themselves to the Atlas. Or it might just be because it’s your home. Entries do not have to be ‘complete’ (others can suggest improvements or help fill gaps later) provided they are accurate and truthful to the best of your knowledge, and they meet the acceptance criteria that an entry needs to meet in order to be published in the Atlas. An entry might just comprise a few key patterns, or it might be a comprehensive mapping of the rights and obligations that apply to that property. It might also include external links and references, and even copies of the actual legal documents that people can drill into.
  3. Become a co-curator We are looking for partner organisations or individuals to become co-curators of the Atlas. This might include academic institutions, educational organisations, researchers with a particular interest in this area, or organisations focused on promoting knowledge or awareness of community ownership models, for example.
  4. Fund it We have been able to build the first (somewhat crude) version of the Atlas, and add the first entries thanks to support from the Arts Council of Ireland, and the funding that is driving our other work forward, for example from The National Lottery Communities Fund and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. However we won’t be able to do this forever, or beyond this initial exploratory phase. For the Atlas to continue, further funding will be needed to sustain part-time curators.

Other forms of ownership are possible

So why would you contribute? Why does any of this matter?

Perhaps just because you, like us, are fascinated by getting a better understanding of this — the invisible code that underpins our lives, our economy and our wealth.

But there’s also a much more pressing reason.

Over the many years we have been researching property and ownership — and during the months we have been working on the Atlas — two realisations have come back to us again and again.

First, that other forms of ownership and stewardship are possible. In fact, not only are they possible, they are already here. Some of them have been here for thousands of years.

But also, right now, all around the world, landowners, communities and governments are responding to the social, economic and environmental failure of our existing property systems by designing new, fairer ways to own and steward land and buildings.

They are running grounded, proven alternatives to the post-feudal systems of ownership that we have inherited.

More and more people are realising that if humanity is to flourish and prosper in the 21st century, redesigning the way we own land and property is going to be one of the most important reform projects of our time.

The good news is that the solutions we need to do it are already here, they’re just not very well distributed yet.

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” — David Graeber

I would like to give huge credit and thanks to all the people behind the Atlas of Ownership so far. Especially Niamh Butler who has led the research, Ollie Zhang, Sarah Scott, and the Open Systems Lab team.

Also to all the collaborators, contributors and advisors, including Shared Assets, Dr Nicholas Simcik Arese of Cambridge University, Rosie Collington and many others.