A Surge of New Work on the City as a Commons

There has been a surge of new interest in the city as a commons in recent months – new books, public events and on-the-ground projects.  Each effort takes a somewhat different inflection, but they all seek to redefine the priorities and logic of urban governance towards the principles of commoning.

I am especially impressed by a new scholarly essay in theYale Law and Policy Review, “The City as a Commons, by Fordham Law School professor Sheila R. Foster and Italian legal scholar Christian Iaione. The piece is a landmark synthesis of this burgeoning field of inquiry and activism. The 68-page article lays out the major philosophical and political challenges in conceptualizing the city as a commons, providing copious documentation in 271 footnotes.

Foster and Iaione are frankly interested in “the potential for the commons [as] a framework and set of tools to open up the possibility of more inclusive and equitable forms of ‘city-making’.  The commons has the potential to highlight the question of how cities govern or manage resources to which city inhabitants can lay claim to as common goods, without privatizing them or exercising monopolistic public regulatory control over them.”

They proceed to explore the history and current status of commons resources in the city and the rise of alternative modes of governance such as park conservancies, community land trusts, and limited equity cooperative housing.  While Foster and Iaione write about the “tragedy of the urban commons” (more accurately, the over-exploitation of finite resources because a commons is not simply a resource), they break new ground in talking about “the production of the commons” in urban settings. They understand that the core issue is not just ownership of property, but how to foster active cooperation and relationships among people. 

“The value of a resource that is collectively produced results from human activity and is contingent on the ability of people to access and use the resource,” they write, noting the principle of “the more, the merrier.” Understood in this sense, commons can be seen as a rich, enormous generator of value for cities – if they can only recognize this fact and craft appropriate policies and support.

Another important work recently published is a book anthology edited by Jose Ramos, The City as Commons:  A Policy Reader. The book, available for free pdf download, contains 34 contributions focused on policy options and strategies for creating cities as commons.  Among the topics:  urban design, public libraries, community currencies, time banks, platform cooperatives, “cosmo-localism,” “civic union land,” open data, the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons, and commoning and tax-delinquent private property.

Just last week another book on the commons arrived, The Illustrated Guide to Participatory City, by Tessy Britton and illustrations by Amber Anderson. This accessible, fun-to-read book tries to show how “participation culture” can revive cities and make them more resilient. The book shows the value of small-scale participation projects, and argues that, taken together, they could help address many larger, interconnected social problems.

Participatory City, the British project that released the book, explains that it is currently trying to develop a large “demonstration neighborhood” to try to scale up practical participation and document the transformative benefits that research indicates is needed.  It is looking for a city of 200,000 to 300,000 residents to participate in a five-year project.

Recently I’ve been active on the city-as-commons front myself.  On September 1, I gave a public talk on the topic at Pakhuis de Zwijger, an Amsterdam cultural/civic center. This was followed by a lively discussion by a panel of four experts on the topic – Chris Iaione of LabGov, David Hammerstein of the Commons Network, Marleen Stikker of the Waag Society, and Stan Majoor of Grootstedelijke Vraagstukken bij HvA.  You can watch a 2 hour, 15 minute video of the event here.

A project called “Exercises in Urban Reconnaissance,” which offers methodological tools for looking at cities in different ways, has a nice definition of the city as a commons:

“The city is a commonwealth, a collaborative environment based on shared resources, free knowledge and collective practices. “Commoning” is a constitutive process of urban organization, establishing and reproducing communities, and defining boundaries, protocols and principles of distribution. Urban commons are hybrid institutions for the management of material and relational resources subject to exhaustion, obsolescence and expropriation; they must be constantly cared for, reclaimed and regenerated.”

I'm eager to see the next turn of the wheel on this topic.  I hope to learn more at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona, at which I am giving a keynote talk on November 17.


Thanks + Question

David I was inspired by your presentation at the Breaking Through Power Conference today.  Thank you so much.

As I mentioned I've spent the last fifty years building alternatives and resisting the militarism and consumerism of our culture.  I look forward to reading you book Think Like a Commoner.

Would you tell me how to access the video recording of your talk today?

Good days to you,  Robin Wilson

Link to my talk at "Breaking Through Power" conference

Hi Robin,

The link to my talk is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHzejqv8acw.  My talk (on the eight-hour video of the day of speakers) is at the 5:35:15 time mark.  Perhaps Real News will break out each segment into separate videos later.