cities

The beautiful city of Florence, Italy, is nearly overwhelmed by throngs of tourists much of the year, which leads one to wonder:  How can residents live and enjoy the city for themselves?

One fascinating answer can be seen in the lovely Nidiaci garden and park. It is a commons dedicated to children that is managed by the residents of the diverse Oltrarno neighborhood and the San Frediano district. The City still legally owns the land, but it has more or less ceded management of the garden to residents who demanded the right to common.

The Nidiaci garden lies behind the apse of the Carmine church, an historic site of the Renaissance.  It is an area with lots of tourism, nightlife and gentrification. When I visited the garden recently, mothers were playing with their toddlers and six-year-olds were playing on swings and racing about: the usual playground stuff.

But what makes the Nidiaci garden special is the commoning that occurs there. The neighborhood decides how to use the space to suit its own interests and needs. “Use of the area depends on what people decide to put into it, for free,” as one amateur historian of the Nidiaci garden put it. In a neighborhood in which about 40% of the children come from families born abroad, this is no small blessing.

Not surprisingly, the park has real character. It hosts the only self-managed soccer school for children in the city, where the emphasis is not just on winning but on sportsmanship. There is a Portuguese musician who teaches violin to children and a British writer who teaches English in a studio space on the grounds. An American filmmaker teaches acting. 

On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons."  I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.

The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015.  She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.

Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services:  a huge, complicated job.

What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals? 

The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways.  Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

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 City as Platform

In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.

That's the opening paragraph from my new report for the Aspen Institute, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance.”  (pdf file download here). The report synthesizes discussion at an Aspen Institute Communications and Society conference last July. About thirty technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates shared insights into how networking technologies are transforming urban life, commerce and government.

I wrote the report as a rapporteur, not a commons advocate, but it’s abundantly clear that the sharing and collaboration facilitated by digital networks are spawning all sorts of new commons and hybrids (e.g., government/commons and government/corporate collaborations). The focus of the conference was mostly on US cities, but these things are happening worldwide, especially in cooperation-minded global cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Seoul.  In the US, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the vanguard, in part because of San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley tech firms and in LA, because everyone there lives on their smartphones.

The City as Commons: The Conference

To judge from the fascinating crowd of 200-plus commoners who converged on Bologna, Italy, last week, it is safe to declare that a major new front in commons advocacy has come into focus – the city.  The event was the conference, “The City as a Commons:  Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance,” hosted by LabGov (LABoratory for the GOVernance of the Commons), the International Association for the Study of the Commons, the Fordham Law School’s Urban Law Center and the Roman law school LUISS.

While there have been a number of noteworthy urban commons initiatives over the years, this event had a creative energy, diversity of ideas and people, and a sense of enthusiasm and purpose. 

The City of Bologna was a perfect host for this event; it has long been a pioneer in this area, most notably through its Regulation on Collaboration for the Urban Commons, which invites neighborhoods and citizens to propose their own projects for city spaces (gardens, parks, kindergartens, graffiti cleanup).

What made this conference so lively was the sheer variety of commons-innovators from around the world.  There was an urban permaculture farmer…..a researcher who has studied the conversion of old airports into metropolitan commons….an expert on “tiny home eco-villages” as a model for urban development…..Creative Commons leaders from the collaborative city of Seoul, Korea….an expert describing “nomadic commons” that use social media to help Syrian migrants find refuge with host families in Italy. 

We heard from a city official in Barcelona about Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform that is attempting to remake the ways that city government works, with an accent on social justice and citizen participation. As part of this new vision of the city, the Barcelona government has banned Airbnb after it drove up rents and hollowed out robust neighborhoods into dead zones for overnight tourists.

The coming together of commons-oriented projects seems to be intensifying.  Even as the Le Temps des Communes festival in dozens of Francophone cities convenes thousands of commoners, an organizing meeting for a Chicago Chamber of Commons in planned for Saturday, October 10. (You can register for the event here.)

This idea has been kicking around for a while – see this 2013 blog post  – but it seems that the folks in Chicago are serious about making it work. They want to foster deeper collaboration among the many groups focused on shared ownership, the collaborative economy, co-operatives and other mutual-benefit initiatives. The organizers say they want to “connect social entrepreneurs, L3C's, B-Corps and other enterprises focused on triple bottom line, sharing-economy approaches to commerce and community development.” People involved with economic transformation, environmental protection, community life and culture are also invited.

The day will start with a consensus workshop that will try to come up with a shared definition of the commons. This will be followed with discussions for startup plans for a Chicago Commons, which organizers hope will be the first of many Chambers of Commons across the nation and globe.

In May, Huffington Post writer Sally Duros wrote a piece about the envisioned Chamber of Commerce in which she quoted Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation: 

"The old way is this. Here's a problem. We need resources to solve that problem. We create a hierarchy to direct resources at the problem," Bauwens says.

"Here's another way. There are enough people in the world with time, skills and energy who would be willing to work to solve that problem. The new solution is to create a commons and a platform that allows people to self-aggregate and collaborate to solve that problem."

Here's hoping that the organizing meeting is productive!

Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber argues in his recent book, The Utopia of Rules, that bureaucracy is the standard mechanism in contemporary life for coercing people to comply with the top-down priorities of institutions, especially corporations and government.  Anyone concerned with the commons, therefore, must eventually address the realities of bureaucratic power and the feasible alternatives. Is there a more human, participatory alternative that can actually work?

The good news is that the City of Bologna, Italy, is pioneering a new paradigm of municipal governance that suggests, yes, there are some practical, bottom-up alternatives to bureaucracy. 

Two weeks ago, the city government celebrated the first anniversary of its Bologna Regulation on public collaboration for urban commons, a system that actively invites ordinary citizens and neighborhoods to invent their own urban commons, with the government’s active assistance.  I joined about 200 people from Bologna and other Italian cities on May 15 for a conference that celebrated the Regulation, which is the formal legal authority empowering citizens to take charge of problems in their city. 

How does the program work? 

It starts by regarding the city as a collaborative social ecosystem. Instead of seeing the city simply as an inventory of resources to be administered by politicians and bureaucratic experts, the Bologna Regulation sees the city’s residents as resourceful, imaginative agents in their own right.  Citizen initiative and collaboration are regarded as under-leveraged energies that – with suitable government assistance – can be recognized and given space to work.  Government is re-imagined as a hosting infrastructure for countless self-organized commons.

To date, the city and citizens have entered into more than 90 different “pacts of collaboration” – formal contracts between citizen groups and the Bolognese government that outline the scope of specific projects and everyone’s responsibilities. The projects fall into three general categories – living together (collaborative services), growing together (co-ventures) and working together (co-production).

People in tech circles often talk about the “attention economy” with knowing nonchalance.  Instead of things being scarce, they note, the real shortage these days is people’s attention.  Hence the ferocious drive to capture people’s attention. 

This analysis is true as far as it goes.  What it fails to address is that the “attention economy” is not really an “economy.”  It is a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Sellers are using every possible technique to colonize our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.    

Author Matthew B. Crawford made an eloquent case for the “attentional commons” in an opinion piece, "The Cost of Paying Attention," in Sunday’s New York Times (March 8).  “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?" he asks.  "Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”

Crawford recounts a series of all-to-familiar intrusions upon our attention:  ads on the little screen used to swipe credit cards at the grocery store…. ads for lipstick on the trays at airport security screening lines…. “endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group” along the moving handrail on an airport escalator….the ubiquitous chatter of CNN and TV ads in the airport lounge. 

“The fields of vision that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower,” Crawford writes.  He concedes that you can put on headphones or play with your smartphone – but the point is that neither of these strategies prevent a shared social space from being destroyed. Without such spaces, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop certain types of attitudes and relationships.  Our inner imagination and ability to reflect atrophy.  Such subtle, inner virtues that pale in the face of cold, hard cash!

What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life?  That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.

The Bologna project is the brainchild of Professor Christian Iaione of LUISS University in Rome in cooperation with student and faculty collaborators at LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons.  LabGov is an “inhouse clinic” and think tank that is concerned with collaborative governance, public collaborations for the commons, subsidiarity (governance at the lowest appropriate level), the sharing economy and collaborative consumption.  The tagline for LabGov says it all:  “Society runs, economy follows. Let’s (re)design institutions and law together.”

For years Iaione has been contemplating the idea of the “city as commons” in a number of law review articles and other essays. In 2014, the City of Bologna formally adopted legislation drafted by LabGov interns. The thirty-page Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons (official English translation here) outlines a legal framework by which the city can enter into partnerships with citizens for a variety of purposes, including social services, digital innovation, urban creativity and collaborative services. 

Taken together, these collaborations comprise a new vision of the “sharing city” or commons-oriented city. To date, some 30 projects have been approved under the Bologna Regulation.  Dozens of other Italian cities are emulating the Bologna initiative.

Governments are so accustomed to dictating their will, through coercion if necessary, that they find it unimaginable that people might willingly – and with creativity and enthusiasm – self-organize themselves to take care of urgent needs.  So pause a moment to behold the remarkable Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.  This settlement of 85,000 displaced Syrians is showing how even desperate, resource-poor people can show enormous creativity and self-organization, and turn their "camp" into a "city."

In many respects, Zaatari bears an uncanny resemblance to the DIY dynamics of the Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert – an annual gathering that attracts more than 65,000 people for a week.  Both eschew "government" in favor of self-organized governance.  Both confer opportunities and responsibilities and individuals, and facilitate bottom-up initiatives through lightweight infrastructures.

As the New York Times reported on July 4, the Zaatari camp has “neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”  Times’ urbanist/architecture critic Michel Kimmelman declares that “Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.”

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