Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
The City as Commons: a Policy Reader, brings together 34 contributions and 31 authors which explore policy options and strategies for creating cities as commons for urban development and transformation. Each contribution explores a different aspect of city commoning and proposes strategies and policy recommendations based on existing projects from around the world. Contributions include:
The ‘City as a Commons’—the idea of urban commoning—is an emerging body of ideas and practices, that have the potential to transform the ways in which we experience and shape our urban environments, and indeed world.
This reader attempts to bring various dimensions of urban commoning into one place, in a format that is easy to digest, communicate and advocate for. The intent of the project is to provide a resource for urban commons advocates, which helps them (you) to articulate and strategize urban commons transformation projects in a variety of areas. It is by no means complete, as the urban commoning movement has only just begun, and the scope of this ‘reader’ is limited to who has contributed. It is merely a step on the journey toward our cities as commons.
It is also part of a process of experimentation. Many of the ideas are new: urban collaborative governance, sharing cities, platform cooperativism, open money, the new political contract between citizens and the state, and so on. Therefore, you the reader are in a special position. Urban commoning is not a finished book, completed and to be followed like a recipe. It is a book with only the first chapter half written. You and urban commons advocates are in a place to propose new innovations and formulations. You the readers should go through each of the proposals with scrutiny and discernment. You may agree with some proposals and disagree with others. If you have suggestions for improvements for any work, let the author(s) know, or write and develop your own versions. (All the authors emails and contact information is in the biography section at the very end of this reader.)
Therefore, in this experiment in pathmaking, you the reader, as advocate, policy maker, social innovator, social entrepreneur, community development worker, writer/scholar, and citizen, play a fundamental role in this journey. It is through you that an urban commons will be created in different cities around the world. It is through you that many of these ideas and proposals will be tested, adopted, discarded or refined. It is through you that urban commoning will transition from embryonic social practices into mature and powerful approaches that can reshape our cities.
A simple definition of the commons is: “that which we mutually depend on for our survival and well-being”. When we consider this, there is much that is the commons. Our atmosphere, access to educational opportunities, public safety, social cohesion, the knowledge resources we need for our survival, the list is endless. But there is more to it than this.
The idea of the commons has experienced a special and profound resurgence over the past few decades. Elinor Ostrom’s work, for which she won a Nobel Prize, was seminal in breaking the mental stranglehold of the dualism that characterized discussions on our commons. This dualism assumed that a shared resource must be managed by the state, or managed by private enterprise, or it was unmanageable. She showed otherwise, how people effectively manage their common resources as communities, outside of the state-market dualism.
Scholar and advocate of the commons, David Bollier, provided this succinct definition for what a commons is:
Peer to Peer (P2P) theorist Michel Bauwens has offered these four categories to explain some of the dimensions of the commons:
There are, I believe, four types of commons to distinguish … The first type is the immaterial commons we inherit, such as language and culture. The second type is the immaterial commons we create. This is where the hugely important knowledge and digital commons come in (since it this digital commons that is currently exploding). The third type is the material commons we inherit, the oceans, the atmosphere, the forests, etc.; and the fourth type is the as yet underappreciated potential for the created material commons, i.e. productively manufactured resources.
Thus, from a commons perspective, we are the oxygen generated by Amazonian rainforests, water that melted from the glaciers of the Himalaya, the ideas produced by thinkers of antiquity, the DNA code passed down to us through thousands of millions of years of evolution, and the open source design revolution reshaping our lives today. Our knowledge of our cosmic self defies the small logic of our individuality. Our individuality is our vehicle for experience and becoming, but it is of the commons.
What binds these all as commons is their characteristic of being critical to our mutual wellbeing and survival, such that they require a collective effort and ethos to protect and extend them. They must, therefore, be collectively governed by the members of society that depend on them for their wellbeing and survival. As we have witnessed, however, through the 20th century and through previous historical periods, the state does not always have the wellbeing of the community in mind. A state may be co-opted by moneyed interests as oligarchy, or it may become despotic. And we have also seen that private interests via processes of capitalism are also not equipped to protect the commons – capitalism, almost by definition, produces vast social and ecological externalities (problems) as a by-product of the concern with immediate profit. Protecting and extending our commons is synonymous with active, shared and inclusive governance that does not (just) rely on market and state, but which is based on the governance rights and practice of those that depend on such commons.
This activity and practice is what Bollier and Silke Helfrich point to as the deeper dimension of the commons. Commons are not things, they argue, they are “an organic fabric of social structures and processes”. Thus the commons are not an object we can just point to, and say “there it is”, but rather becomes so through enacting it with others and that “thing”. Urban co-governance ideas in this reader can thus be considered potential practices of enacting commons between commoners and the urban environments they seek to transform as such. As much as a recognition of common needs and mutual inter-dependence on some thing (water, safety, participation), it is also the creative enactment of bringing what is a “common good” into being through “the consciousness of thinking, learning and acting as a commoner.”
Commons are thematically diverse, but they also transgress simple categories as the language and worldview from which the commons as an idea arises sees the world systemically, interconnected and interdependent. Commons are relationally active – they are embodied through the social practices of people interwoven into culture and geography. A safe atmosphere as a commons arises only through its recognition as something we mutually depend on for our survival and well-being, and which we enact as such through our practices of collective governance and maintenance. Arturo Escobar talks about this relational dynamic as a “pluriverse… made up of a multiplicity of mutually entangled and co-constituting but distinct worlds.”
Thus from the point of view of the urban commons, we can think of our whole city as relational processes of commoning, where citizens recognize and enact commons through consciousness and action. For each of us who lives in a city, we may see the health of the city as our own health, a city’s resilience as our resilience, the empowerment of its citizens as our empowerment, its social relations as our relations – and bring forth new social practices that care for and nurture these aspects of our relational urban worlds.
This reader does not engage extensively with theory, however any engagement with policy does have to grapple with theory at some level. The reason for this is that policy-making sits at the intersection between two crucial elements. On the one hand, the legal (and epistemological) perspectives that frame what is deemed possible or impossible in respect to questions of governance; and on the other hand, the particular practices and strategies that are enacted to ‘make things happen’. Because of this, proposals for urban commoning policies need to be seen as embodying new legal and social perspectives that legitimate them. The current context for policy, in particular in the West, is based on positivist law, a very narrow and technical application of contractual property relations. Based on this, over the past 35 years or so cities around the world have been overwhelmed by neo-liberal and “third way” policy that provides little conceptual space for an urban commons perspective, and hence the policies and the practices that flow from them. Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione provide us with some of the theoretical starting points that begin to build an urban commons framework, writing:
As an initial matter, we contend that any articulation of the urban commons needs to be grounded in a theory of property, or at least a theory about the character of particular urban resources in relationship to other social goods, to other urban inhabitants, and to the state. This is especially necessary given the centrality of property law in resource allocation decisions that affect owners, non-owners and the community as a whole. As David Super has poignantly written, property law has an important role in addressing widespread economic inequality by protecting those goods most essential to the well-being of a broad swath of society, rather than just protecting the goods that are disproportionately held by the wealthy. As long as large segments of the population lack the security that property rights provide, he argues, many social problems will remain quite intractable.
As Foster and Iaione argue, conventional legal theory has not had the conceptual resources needed to understand the dynamics and potentials of enacted commons and commoning, and has assumed that commons are “unregulated open access resource[s]” which people will over-consume and overexploit. By contrast, they argue, a normative (ethics based) understanding of the commons asserts a community’s right to use a city’s resources, because of the value that this produces for the whole community. In their view then, “the city is a commons in the sense that it is a shared resource that belongs to all of its inhabitants.” They write:
… the commons claim is importantly aligned with the idea behind the “right to the city”—the right to be part of the creation of the city, the right to be part of the decision-making processes shaping the lives of city inhabitants, and the power of inhabitants to shape decisions about the collective resource in which we all have a stake.
It is the very relational heart of the commons equation that transforms our understanding of governance and property rights. It is that the quality of public spaces is synonymous with our living quality; or how public safety equates to our safety; or when the price of housing relates to our livelihoods – that we are interwoven into the health of our cities – which is what must transform our relationship from passive observers of the decaying neo-liberal state to active shapers of a city as a commons. The vision which Foster and Iaione give for this they call “urban collaborative governance”. In this vision:
… all actors who have a stake in the commons are part of an autonomous center of decision making as co-partners, or co- collaborators, coordinated and enabled by the public authority.
The state is then a facilitator or enabler for citizen led commoning, synonymous with proposals made by Michel Bauwen and others regarding a “partner state”, in which the state’s central role is to empower its citizens AS A WHOLE. Not empower its property developers to the exclusion of legacy residents. Nor its industry to the exclusion of the air quality of residents. But for the whole. Policy-making for the urban commons, even as it emerges, sits between such theoretical vision and the practices and strategies enacted on the ground.
A leader in the development of urban commons theory and practice is GovLab: an independently run laboratory for the governance of the commons. GovLab was developed to “train a new breed of professionals… experts in the governance of urban commons.” On 6 & 7 November, 2015 they held a landmark conference called the “City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Good, and City Governance.” From the conference, GovLab distilled these learnings on the urban commons:
Along side this profound convergence are singular breakthroughs in urban commoning that are our leading lights. For example, the urban commoning experiment in Bologna involves a reconceptualization of the relationship between citizen and state, and the role of citizen as social innovator in the re-creation of the city. Bologna provides an inspiring example of what is possible for our cities.
It is in this context of innovation where this rather humble endeavor sits. While conceived outside of their ambit, this reader was inspired by these examples and hopes to make a contribution to this broader project of change.
When reviewing the thirty-four or more contributions in this reader, some themes clearly emerge.
The urban commons represents a new political contract. As mentioned, this is clearly seen in the development of the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons as well as Foster and Iaione’s call for “urban collaborative governance”. In a number of examples in this reader, urban commoning strategies require civic-state alliances and coordination, in the vein of Bauwens “partner state” ideas. In particular, new political contracts, such as the one created in Bologna, enfranchise citizens with a right to be social innovators in transforming their cities. Likewise, such political contracts enlist the state as a facilitator charged with empowering citizens in commoning the city. If a city is a commons, then following the wisdom of Elinor Ostrom, it can be governed as one by all the members of a city that depend on its perpetual sustainment. In contrast to the “beyond market and state” notions of the commons, it is clear that for urban commoning, the state’s role cannot be disowned or discarded as a critical factor.
In addition, the urban commons represents a new culture of citizenship. This is a fundamental transformation from citizen as passive beneficiary of technocratic systems, to one who is actively shaping the city around them, taking responsibility for the care and development of their cities. Whereas 20th century technocracy has infantilized citizenry, expected only to be tax payers, service users and once every 3-4 years voters, the urban commons demands that we step up as active citizens to not only create and shape our cities for the better, but indeed to play a role in actively governing our cities with others.
The urban commons also represents new value exchange systems that sit outside the traditional marketplace and outside municipal service relationships. The sharing economy, local currencies, time-banking, circularization of waste, and other reciprocity based systems are part of a new equation in which value finds new ways of circulating and enriching people’s lives. To be truly commons based, these value exchange systems must circulate the value they create back into the communities that produced them.
It can also be added that the urban commons represents new visibility for what has been invisible in relation to urbanism. From intangibles such as culture and cultural intelligence, to the hidden costs of monopoly rents, to underutilized land, and cities’ use of energy and contributions to our atmospheric commons through carbon emissions. The commons perspective naturally unearths dimensions of city life that are hidden by other perspectives, opening the way for more holistic strategies of responsibility taking and wellbeing making.
Of course, the urban commons represents a new way of seeing the city. It represents an emerging worldview and vision. This will evolve over time and become clearer as we make the path by walking.
This reader would not have been created without the friendship and inspiration of Michel Bauwens. While giving talks in Melbourne in late 2015, Michel dropped a match in the dry kindle of my heart, sparking this call for policy briefs that culminated in this reader.
I would also like to acknowledge the Commons Strategy Group, which brought me to Bangkok in 2012 for a commons deep dive and Berlin in 2013 for the Economies of the Commons conference. These experiences helped to seed my thinking and practice and have led to a number of commons projects and directions.
Finally, acknowledgment goes to the authors of the policy briefs that have made this reader such a delight to edit. As an editor, having carefully read through each of your contributions, I have been continually inspired by your ideas, proposals and spirit. I am sure other readers will be just as inspired as I am by your words and visions.
May our urban commons prosper and flourish through our hearts, minds and actions.
José M. Ramos
11 July 2016
 Bollier, D. and Helfrich, S. (2015) Patterns of Commoning, Mass: The Commons Strategy Group / Off the Commons Books (p2-3)
 Escobar, A. Commons in the Pluriverse, in Bollier, D. and Helfrich, S. (2015) Patterns of Commoning, Mass: The Commons Strategy Group / Off the Commons Books, (p355)
 Foster, S.R. and Iaione, C. The City as a Commons, Yale Law and Policy Review, V.34, p.286
 Foster, S.R. and Iaione, C. The City as a Commons, Yale Law and Policy Review, V.34, p.288
 Foster, S.R. and Iaione, C. The City as a Commons, Yale Law and Policy Review, V.34, p.290