Mapping the Commons in Athens and Istanbul

As neoliberal policies put the squeeze on cities, what role can the commons play?  Some commoners in Greece decided to explore this issue by mapping the commons of Athens – and then this year, Istanbul.  The results are an inspiration and prototype for commoners in cities around the world.  The online maps and videos make visible the subjective, experiential commons that sustain people’s daily lives, giving a new twist to the official maps of a city.   

The “Mapping the Commons” project got its start when the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens commissioned the Spanish collective Hackitectura to convene an interdisciplinary group of artists, sociologists, scientists and researchers from universities in Athens.  Hackitectura is a group of architects and programmers that theorizes, and develops projects, that explore how space, electronic flows and social networks converge.  

The Athens project describes itself as “an open collaborative cartography of the contemporary metropolis based on the importance of the commons in times in of disaster capitalism.”  The project explicitly wanted to imagine a new Athens by seeing it through the lens of the commons.  As the organizers put it:  

We propose the hypothesis that a new [view of the] city will come out of the process, one where the many and multiple, often struggling against the state and capital, are continuously, and exuberantly, supporting and producing the commonwealth of its social life.

The workshop will develop collaborative mapping strategies, using free software participatory wiki-mapping tools.

Organizers noted, “Due to our tradition of the private and the public, of property and individualism, the commons are still hard to see for our late 20th century eyes. We propose, therefore, a search for the commons; a search that will take the form of a mapping process. We understand mapping, of course, as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, and as artists and social activists have been using it during the last decade, as a performance that can become a reflection, a work of art, a social action.”

I found the research and video mappings of selected commons in Athens and Istanbul to be tremendously powerful and evocative.  You can watch individual videos by going to the Mapping the Commons website – or go to this commons map (Athens; Istanbul) with embedded videos that run in a single loop.

The project in Athens depicts a wide variety of commons there, including “Language,” “P2P Filesharing,” “Navarinau Park,” “Strefi’s Hill,” “Athens Wireless” and “Graffiti.”  There are also some videos on transient, socially fragile commons as “anger” and “common memory.”  A blog documenting the workshop process was also produced.  The original paper proposing the mapping project can be read here.

At the recent Paratactic Commons conference that I attended in Istanbul on November 10, PhD students Daphne Dragona and Pablo de Soto and filmmaker Demitri Delinkolas explained that participants started by dividing urban commons into four broad categories – natural, public spaces, cultural and digital.  But they quickly encountered trouble since so many commons are transient phenomenon embedded in dynamic networks and animated by subjective emotions. What should be mapped, and what should be omitted? 

Dragona explained that the process itself helped reveal the hidden value lying in the commons.  “This was one of the most precious things we got from the project,” she said.  They found that by assinging metadata to each candidate commons, it became easier to identify which socio-resource systems they wished to consider commons. 

Ultimately, the group in Istanbul chose eight commons to profile through short videos that are embedded on an open mapping platform.  Among the commons:  organized bike rides, free entertainment in public spaces, free wifi, free software, the Freecycle program and stray animals, and graffiti.   For each commons, they asked what conflict the commons presented, against whom – and how was it being fought?

Organizers wanted to “see beyond the ‘public’ and the ‘private’” and emphasize “the elements of sociability, openness, sharing and accessibility” as well as “peer to peer practices, community networks and forms of exchange economy.”  They also wanted to take account of “the ‘wealth’ being produced, the community supporting it and the risks of its enclosure and exploitation.”

I know of only one other project that attempts to map the commons – the Great Lakes Commons Map, developed by Paul Baines.  I think these models provide an excellent template for other cities and even towns to identify the commons in their everyday lives and share the experiences of them with others.