Island Commons

St. Mary’s supports a passionate ministry to preserve and protect the earth the good Lord has given us.  The opening of our new parish house in 2012 left our former parish house poised for rebirth and repurposing.  We have joined a consortium of local agencies organized as Island Commons to support sustainability in all its forms and have made our old parish house available to house its several entities.  Island Commons is partnered with Roger Williams University to develop concepts of operation.  

Island Commons Vision Statement

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole [of] nature in its beauty.” 

~Albert Einstein

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

~Aldo Leopold

It is the year 2017, and the Aquidneck Island community enthusiastically embraces and benefits from a vibrant sustainability center known as Island Commons.  The mission of Island Commons is to help the Aquidneck Island community achieve a more sustainable and connected existence to one another and the natural world that we are a part of primarily through incubator farms for up-and-coming farmers, a significant community garden to help feed those in need on the island, small individual and family gardens for islanders who lack land or wish to garden alongside others in the community, a robust year-round local farmers’ and artisans’ market, a community coffee shop where people can gather and share, a public nature trail system, and a sustainability education series.  

The governance of Island Commons, a non-profit organization, is overseen by a Board of Directors made up of representatives from the Aquidneck Land Trust, St. Mary’s Church Portsmouth, Trustees of the Sarah Gibbs Trust, Aquidneck Growers’ Market, Sustainable Aquidneck, ecoRI, Inc., participating foundations, and other members of the community.  This sustainability center is based out of St. Mary’s former parish house, the Gibbs House office building, St. Mary’s new parish house and the abutting 70 +/- acres conserved in 2013 by the Aquidneck Land Trust, St. Mary’s Church, the Trustees of the Sarah Gibbs Trust and their partners.  The restored former parish house is owned by a Limited Liability Corporation run by the tenant organizations that have office space there such as the Aquidneck Growers Market, Sustainable Aquidneck, and ecoRI, Inc.  The Aquidneck Land Trust operates its office out of the nearby Gibbs House office building.  The 70 +/- acre conservation area, 45 +/- acres of which are owned by the Trustees of the Sarah Gibbs Trust (i.e., the “Gibbs Parcel”) and 25 +/- acres of which are owned by the Aquidneck Land Trust (i.e., the “Young Parcel”), is strategically located between East Main Road and St. Mary’s Pond Reservoir in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.  This conservation area is conveniently situated next to a public bus route.  About 45 acres of the 70 +/- acre conservation area are prime agricultural land.  The other 25 +/- acres, located on the Gibbs Parcel, primarily consist of an important forest that helps buffer and protect the St. Mary’s Pond Reservoir.  The woods, fields and wetlands of the conservation area provide diverse wildlife habitats that support various listed species such as the Glossy Ibis.  The Aquidneck Island community actively engages with Island Common’s major programs which are outlined below. 

First, Island Commons has a dynamic agricultural program, primarily managed by Sustainable Aquidneck in close coordination with other partners (e.g., Lease Agreements with the Aquidneck Land Trust and the Trustees of the Sarah Gibbs Trust), on the 45 +/- agricultural acres of the 70 +/- acre conservation area.  This agricultural program consists of three main components.  There are incubator farm plots, generally about 2 acres in size, where local up-and-coming farmers, through a thoughtful and competitive application process, can get affordable, long-term leases so they can start their agricultural businesses.  Access to land has been a major hurdle to farmers trying to get started and the incubator farm plots component of Island Commons’s agricultural program helps address this problem.  Sustainable Aquidneck, with active support from St. Mary’s Church, also manages a substantial community garden on another section of the 45 +/- agricultural acres, the primary purpose of which is to generate fresh local foods for those in need on Aquidneck Island.  The remaining agricultural acres of the conservation area are managed so as to provide small individual and family garden plots for islanders who lack land and/or wish to garden alongside others in the community.    

Second, Island Commons has a hugely popular year-round local farmers’ and artisans’ market that is run by Aquidneck Growers’ Market.  During the winter months, and on rainy days, the market moves indoor to the gym in the old parish house.  Not only does this market provide a year-round venue for local farmers and artisans to sell their products, but it also provides the community with a wonderful way to interact while purchasing fresh foods and beautiful crafts.

Third, next to the indoor farmers’ and artisans’ market in the old parish house, Island Commons has a community eco-coffee shop, named “Island Commonss,” run by ecoRI, Inc.  This café serves delicious local foods and beverages while providing an attractive space where the community can come to exchange ideas and grow together.  It contains space for public meetings, film screenings, workshops, and local music acts.      

Fourth, within and near the 70 +/- acre conservation area, the Aquidneck Land Trust manages a nature trail system which enables the public to get outside and directly experience, commune and learn about nature.  The conservation area has a segment of the Aquidneck Land Trust’s Center Island Greenway Trail that runs on the land around St. Mary’s Pond, Sisson Pond, Lawton Valley Reservoir, Aquidneck Land Trust’s Oakland Forest and Meadow Preserve and elsewhere.  There is also a crosswalk, from the eastern part of the 70 +/- acre conservation area across East Main Road, which enables the public to walk the short distance to the Aquidneck Land Trust’s Sakonnet Greenway Trail, Aquidneck Island’s largest public nature trail.   

Fifth, the partners that makeup Island Commons run a year-round sustainability education series out of meeting spaces in the old parish house, the new parish house and on the land itself.  The classes offered to the public cover the latest best practices in gardening and agriculture, local flora and fauna identification, water conservation, how to eat in a healthy and sustainable way, our founding conservationists (Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, etc.), and other subjects that help island residents understand how to live in a more sustainable way.

A critically acclaimed documentary film, Island Commons, has just come out documenting the incredible community transformation that has occurred on Aquidneck Island since the opening of this sustainability center.  People on the island have never felt more connected to one another and the natural world here, and sustainability discussions and practices have never been so widespread.  The film has helped Island Commons become a beacon of light to other communities around the world.