Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Executive summary by Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation, research) and Yurek Onzia (project coordination)
This study  was commissioned and financed by the City of Ghent, a city in northern Flanders with nearly 300,000 inhabitants, with the support of its mayor Daniel Termont, the head of the mayor’s staff, the head of the strategy department, and the political coalition of the city which consists of the Flemish Socialist Party SPA, the Flemish Greens (Groen) and the Flemish Liberal Party (Open VLD).
The request was to document the emergence and growth of the commons in the city, to offer some explanations of why this was occurring, and to determine what kind of public policies should support commons-based initiatives, based on consultation with the active citizens in Ghent.
The authors of the report are Michel Bauwens as investigator and Yurek Onzia as coordinator of the effort.
Timelab, an artistic makerspace under the leadership of Evi Swinnen, and the Greek scholar of the P2P Lab Vasilis Niaros, played important supportive roles in the realization of this project. Wim Reygaert and partners provided the graphics used in the original report. Annelore Raman coordinated the connections within the city council.
The consultation, which took place during the spring of 2017, took the form of:
The report consists of four parts.
The provides the context on the emergence of urban commons, which has seen a tenfold increase in the Flanders in the last ten years. It focuses on the challenge it represents for the city and the public authorities, for market players, and for traditional civil society organisations, and how the new contributive logic of the commons challenges (but also enriches) the logic of representation of the European democratic polities, in this specific case, at the level of a city. It also looks at the opportunities inherent in the new models such as more active participation of inhabitants in co-constructing their cities, in solving ecological and climate change challenges, and in creating new forms of meaningful work at the local level.
The second part is an overview of urban commons developments globally, but especially in European cities, and takes a closer look at the experiences in Bologna (with the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons, now adopted by many other Italian cities), Barcelona (the pro-commons policies of the new political coalition of En Comu), Frome, UK (for its civic coalition that replaced the political parties in the running of the city), and Lille, for its experience with a Assembly of the Commons as a voice and expression of the local commons.
The is the analysis of the urban commons in Ghent itself, highlighting some of its strengths and weaknesses.
And finally, in the , based on our analysis in the three first parts, we offer our recommendations to the City, in terms of an institutional adaptation of the city to the new commons-centric demands that emerge through the commons activities. It’s a set of 23 integrated proposals for the creation of public-commons processes for citywide co-creation. In some way, it represents the shift from urban commons to a more ambitious vision of the ‘city as a commons’.
We define the commons as a shared resource, which is co-owned or co-governed by a community of users and stakeholders, under the rules and norms of that community. There is no commons without active co-production (commoning), and without an important measure of self-governance. Thus, it differs from both public and state- or city-owned goods, and from private property managed by its owners. Both a Dutch study by Tine De Moor (Homo Cooperans), and a study for the Flanders by the Oikos think thank have confirmed a steep rise in the number of commons-oriented civic initiatives (commons-oriented means that important aspects of the initiatives have commons’ aspects). This rise is related to a growing awareness amongst a layer of citizens that a social and ecological transition is necessary given the relative state and market failures, but also by the effects of the great economic and systemic crisis of 2008, which has seen an austerity-driven retreat from public authorities in terms of common infrastructures.
These new urban commons however do not exist ‘on their own’ as fully autonomous projects and entities but by necessity interact with both public and market forces, for access to resources and support.
Thus the commons is a challenge for the other institutions as well:
The commons requires a ‘partner’ city, which enables and empowers commons-oriented civic initiatives. It also requires generative market forms which sustain the commons and create livelihoods for the core contributors as well as facilitative types of support from civil society organisations.
An important discovery in our analysis of the 500+ urban commons projects in Ghent, is that their structure strongly resembles that of the commons-driven digital economy. This means that at the heart of urban commons we find:
This relationship is shown by the following graph:
This graph shows the five entry points of the commons economy in which the city is actively intervening (bottom), the 3 elements of the commons economy, and the public-commons processes and institutions which could be set up as a meta-structure to frame the cooperation between the city, the commoners and the generative economic entities.
It is also clear that the commons initiatives and their emerging economy, hold great potential for the social and economic life of the city.
The three main potentials are in our opinion the following:
The city of Ghent is a dynamic city of nearly 300k inhabitants including a huge number of young people and students. It’s a city in which the commons already have a distinct presence, with support from an active and engaged city administration.
These positive aspects should be tempered by the following issues:
The general logic of our proposals is to put forward realistic but important institutional innovations that can lead to further progress and expansion of the urban commons in Ghent in order to successfully achieve its ecological and social goals. We propose public-social or public-partnership based processes and protocols to streamline cooperation between the city and the commoners in every field of human provisioning.
We are not summarizing all proposals here, merely the underlying logic.
Graphic 7 (“proposed transition infrastructure for the city of Ghent’”) shows the general underlying logic.
Commons initiatives can forward their proposals and need for support to a City Lab, which prepares a ‘Commons Accord’ between the city and the commons initiative, modeled after the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons. Based on this contract, the city sets-up specific support alliances which combine the commoners and civil society organisations, the city itself, and the generative private sector, in order to organize support flows.
Graphic 9 describes a cross-sector institutional infrastructure for commons policy-making and support, divided in ‘transition arenas’.
The model comes from the existing practice around the food transition, which is far from perfect and has its problems, but nevertheless has in our opinion the core institutional logic that can lead to more successful outcomes.
The city has indeed created an initiative, Gent en Garde, which accepts the five aims of civil society organisations active in the food transition (local organic food, fairly produced), which works as follows. The city has initiated a Food Council, which meets regularly and could contribute to food policy proposals. The Food Council is representative of the current forces at play, and has both the strength and weaknesses of representative organisations. The Food Council contain a contributive ‘food working group’ which mobilizes those effectively working at the grassroots level on the food transition by following a contributive logic, where every contributor has a voice. In our opinion, this combination of representative and contributory logic is what can create a super-competent Democracy+ institution that goes beyond the limitations of representation and integrates the contributive logic of the commoners. But how can the commoners exert significant political weight?. This requires voice and self-organisation. We therefore propose the creation of an Assembly of the Commoners, for all citizens active in the co-construction of commons, and a Chamber of the Commons, for all those who are creating livelihoods around these commons, in order to create more social power for the commons.
This essential process of participation can be replicated across the transition domains, obtaining city and institutional support for a process leading to Energy as a Commons, Mobility as a Commons, Housing, Food, etc.
We also propose the following: (not exhaustive)
We also propose
 A slightly graphically improved version of the official Dutch language version of the report can be found here. Suggested citation: Commons Transitie Plan voor de Stad Gent. Michel Bauwens en Yurek Onzia. Ghent, Belgium: City of Ghent and P2P Foundation, 2017
Header photo by estefaniabarchietto