Cities of commons

This article answers the question how neighborhoods and cities can become thriving communities and places to live that contribute to the well-being of their residents.

Only few people want to be actively engaged in politics. Meanwhile, many more people are willing to participate in activities to improve their living environment as an extension of their homes. Instead of waiting for governmental action, they started to revitalize the public green, create a playground, cultivate vegetables and herbs. But this was just the beginning. Empty stores were reused to lend books and tools. Even closed facilities such as a swimming pool were reopened by groups of volunteers. Not to forget, the large number of energy cooperatives that taking responsibility for the local energy supply. Neighborhoods become the ‘new commons’, inspired by Elinor Ostrom (header photo), Nobel prize winner in 2009, author of the seminal book Governing the Commons.

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Commoning cities is part ten of a series of essays on how cities can become more humane. That means finding a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. This requires far-reaching choices. Once these choices have been made, it goes without saying that we use smart technologies to achieve these goals. The essays that have already been published can be found here.

The ‘new commons’, collective human agency or civil society are (re)established as a third power between state and market. Watch a short and insightful video that explains the meaning of the commons.

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This article examines the contemporary commoning movement in three steps. The first step is to explore the global, fast-growing group of actions, primarily focused on revitalizing the fabric of declining urban communities. With the aim of enforcing the agency of their inhabitants, making them happier, vitalizing their sense of community and taking the first steps towards improving their living environment.

The second step is to explore how groups of people become responsible for activities in the city. The difference with the first step is gradual. Examples of the ‘new’ commons can be found worldwide; in Bologna (Italy) alone, there are a few hundred of them. The third step explores tentative actions that consider the city as a common itself. Here the communal agency of a broad spectrum of activities begins to blur the traditional forms of public management and is considered as an ideal-typical new – still fictional – form of urban democracy.

The rebirth of the community

In many places of the world, local citizens initiate participatory actions, such as incidental street closure to enable play and socializing, a garden party, language courses for migrants, planting trees and much more. People who take such initiatives are invaluable. However, the sustainability of these activities depends on the perseverance of a few people and often initiatives fade away after an enthusiast start.

A dedicated group of people in the UK, inspired and led by Tessy Britton, is on its way to answer the question how to secure continuity in participatory action. In 2010 a collection of 28 neighborhood projects around the world was published in Hand Made followed by 12 editions of the Community Lovers Guide with another 150-inspiring case studies in many cities. Based on these examples, the group organized workshops in the United Kingdom to determine which participative activities appealed to a variety of people. These workshops also provided deeper insight into the barriers to participative projects and essential ingredients for a potentially successful approach. These ingredients were to offer professional support, sharing risks, encouraging learning, and to offer many activities at once.

To organize support and to scale up participatory activities, it turned out that two separate systems has to be built (see below). One system to offer what is required to start and grow projects and another what is required to generate regular participation by significant numbers of citizens.

The two systems that organize participatory projects: Support platform and participatory ecosystem. Source: Year Two, Tools to Act .

West Norwood (London Borough of Lambeth) provided an excellent opportunity to test the emerging ideas by setting up a 12-month pilot project, called Open Works. The project team co-created together with inhabitants about twenty projects, including cooking, skill sharing, gardening, play and childcare. More than 1000 people were involved and the project was evaluated in detail in a book Designed to Scale. The support platform and the participatory ecosystem proved to work; the overwhelming conclusion was that establishing a participatory culture can be achieved through small scale activities, only when a great diversity of actions, by many people add over time (page 196). Here you will find a short description of Open Works.

The next step was scaling up the Open Works project, and the East London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (208.000 inhabitants) became location for the five-year Project Every One Every Day, issued by the newly founded Participatory City Foundation. The project will develop 250 projects, offering thousands of inclusive opportunities for at least 22.000 local residents to participate in practical enjoyable activities in their neighborhood. This short video offers an overview of the Every One, Every Day project.

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The project recently published a comprehensive account of the first two years of hectic action, a 400-page, free-to-download book. The project evaluation includes a wealth of information and is an excellent overview of practice, methodology, ongoing research and interim results. The illustrations in this section are from this book (Licensed under Creative Commons) and references to page numbers below also concern the book. I am convinced that projects like these are among the best contributions towards becoming a humane city, apart from policies that deal with poverty. I fully agree with Marc Stears, chairman of the Global Advisory Group of Every One, Every Day who wrote it is work like this which can save the world. The first section of this article is devoted to the activities of the Participatory City Foundation in Barking and Dagenham.

Great cook

Local residents come together to prepare tasty and healthy meals in a shared kitchen. Afterwards they take home portions for diner. As anyone can suggest his or per preferred meals, and supervise the cooking process, participants become acknowledge with a broad variety of meals. The participants join in by bringing one of the ingredients.

This popular project has many varieties, such as cooking deserts, cooking baby meals, family cooking (parents cook together with their children), starter cooking et cetera. After the sessions, participants earn a certificate for hygiene.

The borough of Barking and Dagenham is an example of the ‘new normal’ in the London suburbs: Perma-austerity, unsustainable rise in demand for social and medical services, high level of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, environmental degradation, lack of trust, sinking social cohesion and radical demographic change. In 2001 89% of the population was white British, by 2011 less than half was. At the same time, the City Council’s Inclusive growth strategy is radically putting its residents’ interests in the center, after the Labour party succeeded in taking power over from the ultra-right.

A closer look at the participative ecosystem

The participatory ecosystem in Barking and Dagenham already offers thousands of opportunities for citizens to participate in a wide variety of activities only two years from the start. The projects are usually based on practical activities such as cooking, learning, making, repairing; co-producing something in a group of peers. Anybody can suggest project ideas and contribute to their realization.

Most projects require little time, cost and effort. They are usually near people’s homes and have tangible benefits. They are focused on needs and even more on discovery and development of talent. Between the lines, a small selection of projects is shortly described. You will find a comprehensive overview of the projects at pages 272 – 401.

Open Corners

In this project residents who would like to see more green spaces on empty and ugly corners transform these in vegetable patches, play corners, community gardens or even dog parks. It happens that a group of people adopts an area and continues to maintain it, year after year, introducing new techniques like a composter. It also happens that each of the participants takes care of a small lot of its own.

The support platform

The support platform consists of 16 developers and 12 people who are responsible for the technical infrastructure: shops, Warehouse, safety, insurance, finance, training and communication. In Barking and Dagenham are five ‘shops’ (between 150 – 250 m2) where visitors are welcomed with a cup of tea and informed about projects. The shops offer working space for the employees of the Foundations and rooms for meetings.

By far the largest part of the infrastructure is the Warehouse, a 3300 m2 workshop. The Warehouse contains a range of tools, spaces, machinery and learning opportunities which are accessible to local residents in Barking and Dagenham, also those who are not participating in Every One Every Day. However, for its group meetings the Warehouse offers before excellent opportunities.


During the second year, 160 participants (out of 3200) have been interviewed.  Applying a grounded theory method, nine personal effects for the participants (individual agency) have been established: (1) feeling welcome, (2) feeling included and accepted, (3) making friends, (4) building trust, (5) being active, (6) learning and feeling excited, (7) being creative, (8) growing in confidence and capability, and (9) feeling happy and optimistic.

Outcomes Framework. Source: Year Two, Tools to Act .

The interviews offer evidence that not only individual agency has been attained, but also that Individual agency appears to be a gateway to seven fields of collective, resulting from repeated participation: (1) Mental and physical wellbeing, (2) Families and young people, (3) Learning and neighborhood, (4) Learning and work, (5) Cohesion and neighborliness, (6) Collective action and co-production and, (7) Environment.

The report gives many insightful quotes from participants that bear witness of the growth of both types of agency.

Collaborative business programs

Projects like Pantry and Bowls are fresh food catering collectives. They are examples of collaborative business programme. This kind of programs offers opportunity to learn relevant skills and instantly test trade business ideas collectively. In the case of Bowls, participants offer their fresh food bowls with a variety of receipts on street markets, and festivals.

The chart below gives an overview of the learning sequence; at the end of the program participants still do not possess enough skills to start a business of their own, but they have experienced the opportunities and challenges and they pass a course by the Chamber of Commerce in a fast way.

Visualization of the four stages in a business development program. Source: Every One, Every Day Year Two, page 122.

In addition to the above-mentioned results, a number of research questions have also been answered with regards to the project as a whole:

1. There is evidence that the systems approach to building large scale participation is feasible. As intended, the participatory ecosystem has grown faster than the support platform.

2. It is proven that the activities are creating ‘bridging networks’ in the community and that participants represent the social structure of the borough, with the exception of a predominance of female participants. Everyone feels welcome, included and accepted.

3. Because of the creation of individual and collective agency, the project is creating value for the community; at the same time, it saves people from isolation, distress, illness and other hardships, which in the long turn results in financial savings.

4. Despite its short existence, the project already is an integral part of the social infrastructure of the borough, which results in co-creation of activities with specialist services.

5. Increasing understanding of the core and contextual elements of the participation approach is resulting in a learning framework for testing in many other cities, who are keen to partner to build their own local platforms. However, it has to be prevented that ‘external’ provision of information and training becomes over-proportioned to the main purpose of the project.

A detailed overview of all research methods, questions, and outcomes van be found at p. 192 -271.

Trade school

Trade school is a learning space that runs on barter. Participants can teach and learn anything they are shilled or interested in. It is a low risk way to share knowledge and skills. It is also a way where people can test or discuss business ideas at an early stage. A variation is the Kids Trade School. Here are children the presenters and adults the listeners.


With three years to go, the project also faces challenges, which are also relevant to the application of the participatory model elsewhere:

1. The support platform that will grow modestly must find workable strategies to enable exponential growth of the participatory ecosystem. The answer will come from a combination of standardization, falling investments in the development of new activities, a growing number of experienced users and co-production.

2. In the second year, new kinds of activities were started that differ from previous ones, for instance collaborations with other groups and business programmes. In the future still other types of activities will be arise. It is extremely important to maintain the basic principles of design, for instance with regard to inclusivity.

3. The workload within the support platform can be at the expense of the highly valuated exposure to continuous learning and development evaluation. Therefore, activities that have grown into well-accepted routines can be codified, while for other activities dedicated time investment in team learning must be guaranteed.

4. Originally, participants were involved in the formal decision-making about projects. Despite frequent attempts, meetings were poorly attended, ineffective and sometimes frustrating. Therefore, a switch was made to more distributed decision-making, whereby participants can speak-out ‘just in time’ and in a more organic way. It is still too early to conclude, but team members seem to be pleased with it.

5. Given the highly demanding work and the eagerness of the team members to cope with these demands, they have to be protected from burnout, by periodic breaks by occasionally releasing them from intensive personal interactions.

6. Given the growing harshness of the political arena and extremes in the way some groups are exposing themselves, the project must remain independent and only work with partners that support key values like cohesion, inclusivity and equality.

7. The project must face from time to time its feasibility after the experimental period.

Project diffusion

Based on an experience of ten years, including three years of large-scale field work (Open Works and Every One, Every Day), there is a broad conviction that the core aspects of the participative model can be adapted anywhere. Some conditions must be met, such as: Broad sense of urgency and sympathy within the city government for participatory projects, willingness to fund a professional project organization, and an enthusiast group of initiating volunteers.

The diffusion of participatory methods is a main objective of the Participatory City Foundation. Therefore, it founded the Here and Now School for Participatory Systems and Design, thanks to a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The School plans to offer a comprehensive learning experience, including learning toolkits and online resources, to prepare city teams for initiating similar projects. Experienced developers will take the role of tutor.

The implementation process for interested city-teams (page 148).

In two years, an incredible lot of activities have taken place, and many inhabitants have become frequent participants who report that their lives have changed. The critical factor in the evident success is the presence of a small group of professional ‘supervisors’, whose main task is the initiation and support of local initiatives and who take care also for incidental links with the supportive local authorities.

The new commons

The second group of projects emphasizes collective agency regarding urban and rural problems. Here social and political participation start to merge. In the ‘new commons’ citizens become creators, managers and users: Creating green areas, converting an empty house into affordable units for students, the elderly or migrants, exploiting mini-bus services, and many more.

As Christian Iaione writes: Perhaps we are entering in the “CO-era”, where key words seem to be community, collaboration, cooperation, communication, commons, co-design, co- production, co-management, co-housing, sharing…. All these words recall the making, living and growing together.

Repair Café: Fixing things (The Netherlands and worldwide)

Many useful products like clothing, textiles, toys, bicycles, furniture, and household appliances are discarded as waste because people lack the skills or tools to repair broken items. However, there are people who have those skills and tools. In 2009, Martine Postma organized the very first Repair Café in Amsterdam to connect both kinds of people. Now, 1000 Repair Café groups operate in 25 countries. On average, groups meet once a month with around 25 repairs been carried out, representing over 200,000 products per year.

The Repair Café Foundation’s starter kit can be bought for a voluntary donation.

Repair café in action. Photo: Ilvy Njiokiktjien. Licensed under: CC BY-SA 3.0.

The right to common land or other resources already existed in Europe in the Middle Ages and was, as Peter Linebaugh illustrated in his book The Magna Carta Manifesto also affirmed in the American constitution. Commons are based on the right to use land and other resources without considering them as collective property let alone to enable individuals to make money from it. Or in the words of Tine de Moor: In a world where markets and the state have started to reach the limit of their capacities to govern resources in a sustainable way, society is turning increasingly to ‘‘joint resource management’’. More and more, collective initiatives of ‘‘stakeholders’’, trying to reach their economic and social goals via collective action.

The concept of commons has three dimensions:

  • The ‘common pool’ of natural or manmade resource themselves;
  • the ’common-property regime’, referring to something between private and public property;
  • The ‘common-pool institution’ which is set up to organize the use.

The seminal article The City as a commons by Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione, published in the Yale Law & Policy Review in 2016 describes the origin of the concept of commons and mentions the similarities and differences between the view of Elinor Ostrom and those of contemporary authors about the urban commons. The latter mainly deal with issues such as urban poverty, gentrification, climate change, and migration and the concept of the city as a commons that will be discussed later.

Community land trust (London, and many other cities)

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are usually based on separate ownership of land and of houses. The trust retains permanent ownership of the land while the homeowner owns the house and initiates any improvements. The sale of these houses is strictly regulated.

In the USA about 250 CLTs are active. Cities are increasingly supporting them as they are effective in expanding affordable housing. The London Community Land trust has revamped the premises of the former St. Clement’s Hospital into an area with 252 new homes, which are sold at around a third of their market value(sic!)

The largest CHT in the US is Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) in Vermont and oversees 565 owner-occupied homes plus 2200 rental apartments.

John Denham Building. St. Clements’s Hospital London. Photo: diamond geezer. Licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The authors depart from Elinor Ostrom’s groundbreaking research about collaborative management of common pool. However, they have adapted Ostrom eight design principles to the urban context.   

Ostrom focused on close-knit communities (principle 1), characterized by social control and sanctioning (principles 5 and 6) which allowed the same persons to both obey and enforce the rules (principle 3). These principles have proven their value for centuries in the management of shared scarce, and renewable natural resources such as rivers, lakes, fisheries, and forests.
Cities are what we might call “constructed” commons, the result of emergent social processes and institutional design. 

The process of constructing commons—what some refer to as “commoning”—involves a collaborative process of bringing together a wide spectrum of actors that work together to co-design and co-produce shared, common goods and services at different scales, which are already heavily regulated, complex and diverse entities. For the use in urban environments, the recognition by a higher authority (principle 7), the importance of multiple  layers (principle 8), the existence of collective management arrangements (principle 3), and resource adaptation to local conditions (principle 2) are most relevant.

To further develop the design principles for urban commons, the Italian LabGov (Laboratory for the Government of the Commons) has built a dataset. To date, 187 have been mapped cities, with 543 case descriptions and 95 case study analyses. The case studies come from different kinds of cities located around the world, and include world cities such as Seoul (South Korea), San Francisco (USA), Madrid and Barcelona (Spain), Athens (Greece), Nairobi (Kenya), Medellin (Colombia), and many others.

All data was collected using a common framework. Here is a description of the methodology and a summary of the results. This collection offers ample possibilities for comparative studies. Michael Bouwens, for example, analyzed 40 cases to find significant difference between developing and developed countries, but there are still plenty of unexplored opportunities for further investigation.

One of the insights that has come from studying these projects is that ecological problems disproportionally affect the poor but that solving them also offers economic and social opportunities for creating local economies, jobs, skills and income.

Energy cooperatives (Lombok, the Netherlands)

The more than 400 energy co-operatives in the Netherlands illustrate that many citizens do not want to rely on public services.  In these co-operatives, local residents are producers and consumers of energy at the same time and they are responsible for the storage and trading of the surplus of energy.

Almost 10 years ago a number of residents from Lombok, a neighbourhood in Utrecht started to cover roofs of houses, schools and other buildings with solar panels. By connecting these sources, a small locally owned ‘virtual’ energy company was established that currently serves 3,000 households.

 In 2014, a smart grid was rolled out. A smart grid is a partially isolated part of the main grid in which locally produced electricity is distributed, stored and exchanged with the main grid.  Devices in households that produce energy (solar panels) and use and store energy (electric cars and boilers) can be regulated from a central point to balance supply and demand. This is fully-automated and managed by software. Recently, the neighbourhood made available 20 electric cars for energy storage and for car-sharing as well.

Many of these projects are also documented in a fascinating book, edited by Sharable in which these experiments are described in detail. The examples, regarding the repair workshops, the community land trust, the reuse of vacant lots in New York City and the Miethäuser Syndikat come from this book that can be downloaded for free.

Principle 1: Collective governance refers to the presence of a multi-stakeholder governance scheme whereby the community emerges as an actor and partners up with at least three different urban actors.

Principle 2: Enabling State expresses the role of the State in facilitating the creation of urban commons and supporting collective action arrangements for the management and sustainability of the urban commons.

Principle 3: Social and Economic Pooling refers to the presence of different forms of resource pooling and cooperation between five possible actors in the urban environment.

Principle 4: Experimentalism is the presence of an adaptive and iterative approach to designing the legal processes and institutions that govern urban commons.

Principle 5: Tech Justice highlights access to technology, the presence of digital infrastructure, and open data protocols as an enabling driver of collaboration and the creation of urban commons.

The eight principles of Elinor Ostrom’ (see box) have been revised based on the case studies. 

The next stage: the co-city

Each city that sees the number of its commoning projects grow will benefit from this, still without the need to change its administrative organization. However, there is still much to be gained here. The city of Bologna has started to adapt its administrative organization to the existence of its many commons. In the long run this process is an example for other cities.

596 Acres (New York City)

In every city, particularly in low-income areas, there are hundreds of vacant lots One was in Paula Segal’s neighborhood in Brooklyn. She organized a neighborhood meeting, which eventually resulted in Myrtle Village Green, a half a hectare-space with flower beds, an outdoor movie screening area, a pumpkin patch, and an educational farm.

She did not stop here and discovered that there are 596 acres of public land waiting for reuse and soon after 596 Acres was born. She gathered information about the lots and put signs on the fences of vacant city-owned lots that say, “This land is your land”. She is available to support residents through the bureaucratic mazes.

Since 2011 groups of citizens have begun campaigns to transform over 200 sites and 39 new community-managed spaces are already thriving. They will be permanently preserved as community spaces by the New York City municipal government.

A dozen cities around the globe, including Philadelphia and Melbourne have implemented a comparable strategy.

Since 2011, the City of Bologna has started to give commons a formal status. This resulted in the establishment of a regulatory framework, the Bologna Regulation on civic collaboration for the urban commons, which can be read here. Its main regulatory tool are pacts of collaboration, through which the city and citizens (informal groups, NGO’s, private entities) agree on a set of activities and responsibilities regarding a specific urban common (green spaces, abandoned buildings, squares). Since the approval of the regulation, hundreds of pacts have been signed. The city provides what the citizens need – from materials and tools to business and financial planning assistance – and the citizens provide their time and their skills.

Mietshäuser Syndikat (MHS) in Germany

As many self-organized social co-housing projects fail, a supporting institution was founded to overcome the challenges in the critical early phases, in terms of dealing with legal issues, finances, and group dynamics.  A legal construct stipulates that each cohousing project is considered an autonomous enterprise that owns its real estate. To join MHS, the project needs to be self-organized by its residents, and a house and a financing plan must be on hand. Once the cohousing project has a secure financial basis, it needs to support new projects that are in an early stage. Since 1983, the network has grown to consist of 111 cohousing projects with a total of about 3,000 residents.

In the Netherlands, the Stad in de Maak foundation has comparable objectives as the Miethäuser Syndikat.

Grethergelande, Freiburg, The first project of the Mietshäuser Syndikat. Photo: Mietshausersyndikat.

The CO-Bologna process was launched in 2015 with the aim of moving from the growth of urban commons to the development of the City as a Commons. In such a city, decision-making is distributed throughout the city that becomes a network of urban commons. The CO-Bologna process is intended in the long term to transform city government in the long term into an institutional ecosystem based on sharing, collaboration and polycentricism.

A first step was creating six distinct to complement the role of the city government. These districts, each with have their own councils and presidents, act as local hubs that are attuned to neighborhoods’ individual needs. They can better allocate the resources of the city and contribute to a renewed sense of community and shared purpose. Following this reform, six laboratories were established, one in each district, to foster connections between the local government and citizens. They serve as centers of collaboration where staff members help citizens refine and develop their ideas.

City laboratories

City labs can be found in many places. In Bologna, these are organized at neighborhood level and they have a direct relationship with existing and future commons. The Delft Design Lab Participatory City Making also starts from the philosophy of democratic participative ‘city making’. It combines two methodical approaches: transition studies and design thinking. Special attention is paid to young people who often feel somewhat uncomfortable with these types of initiatives. These workshops increase the ability and the willingness to participate in urban development projects. It is therefore desirable to encourage participants to get to work immediately in practice afterwards. In Bologna, this is certainly not a problem (taken from an article by Ingrid Mulder, director of the Delft City Lab in the Tijdschrift voor Positieve Psychologie, February 2020)

The Civic Imagination Office is another initiative that monitors the laboratories and works to encourage citizen participation, and also opened up a participatory budgeting process. This allows all residents, regardless of how long they have lived in the city to propose and vote on the citizen-led projects that they most want to see come to life. Finally, there is IncrediBOL! that supports creative startups with free space in the city, money or consulting services. For instance, Incredibol! has transformed an abandoned market into the Mercato Sonato, a multi-purpose space, which makes classical music more accessible to residents.

The new regulations and infrastructure have enabled a wave of citizen-driven projects that are on their way to transform the city. More than 480 collaboration pacts have been implemented, including the cleaning of 15,000 square meters of city walls and the renovation of 110 city benches. As a result of the collaboration between citizens, city government, businesses, and nonprofit organizations, citizen-led efforts have gone beyond physical improvements. Outcomes range from new services to small businesses to public spaces reimagined as cultural institutions, such as a former market turned into a concert hall used by hundreds of local musicians.

Below, a short video gives an impression of the development of the Co-city process that so far seems to have led in many small processes and a more workable relation between active citizens and the government. Because of its many citizens-initiated activities in 2018 Bologna, became Engaged Cities Award Winner.

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Bologna has enabled thousands of citizens to become co-makers of the city. The city has been an example for many other cities within and outside Italy. However, it was not the only city that empowered citizens. Some examples:

In Athens, SynAtina, has been developed as an online-platform since 2013 and allows citizens to map their activities, announce events, submit ideas for city improvements, and connect with volunteers and funders. So far (Februari 2020) 4073 projects have been posted on SynAthina by more than 443 self-organized civic groups.

In Brazil, Porto Alegre has become one of the forerunners of participatory budgeting. The process follows an annual cycle. In April and May, citywide assemblies meet to set priorities, select councilors, and perform local-level budget reviews. In May and July, assemblies consolidate priorities and elect delegates to participate in the funding request review process. Approximately 50,000 residents decide (out of 1.5 million) how $200 million is spent annually. Due to participatory budgeting, more funds are allocated to health and sanitation. The success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has inspired 1,500 instances of participatory budgeting worldwide.

In South Korea, Seoul launched the Metropolitan Government Ordinance on the Promotion of Sharing with the aim of maximizing joint resource utilization, restoring communities and revitalizing the regional economy. Organizations that plan to address social issues through sharing can apply for funds and use public facilities at a reduced fee to serve the public interest.

The heart of sharing city Seoul is ShareHub, an online platform that connects users to sharing services. After having existed for nearly five years, ShareHub has served millions of visitors and has played a key role in promoting sharing policies, projects, and culture in Seoul.

Co-cities: still one bridge too far?

Everyone who visits the Co-city website will be impressed by the large number of commoning processes in more than a hundred cities worldwide. The same applies to the aforementioned Sharable publication. Thousands of citizens worldwide are involved in projects, varying from retrofitting an empty school to a building a local network of urban farmers. Commons are growing fast, but the concept of the City as a Commons is still in its early stages. The growing number of commons still has essentially not yet changed the essence of urban government. Although in Bologna the government became decentralized and therefore more sensitive to the needs and wants of citizens. But nowhere has the ‘city hall’ been replaced by a distributed network of ‘city houses’, as Christian Iaione is fancying. In fact, Iaione is realistic and is distinguishing four stages through which a co-city might emerge slowly.

  • Sharing and participation: The joint use of available resources, which is in essence what happens in Barking and Dagenham;
  • Collaboration in the creating and managing resources, which is characteristic of most examples of commoning discussed so far;
  • Cooperation, based on a certain degree of division of labor and subsequent institutionalization, for instance a group of entrepreneurs in Bologna who are revitalizing a shopping center of a group of consumers who organize the production or distribution of energy in their neighborhood;
  • Poly-centricity, the development of the government of a city (or part of it) from the multitude of cooperatives in order to coordinate them and to provide the basic basic functions, such as the police.

At the moment, the first and second stages are in full development and there are more and more examples of commoning at the third level. The fourth level hardly exists and should not be confused with decentralization.

Centralized, decentralized and distributed systems. Source: Silke Helfrich: Imagining the (R)Urban Commons.

In my opinion, many cities can take an example from the Bologna experience. The city government has been facilitating the growth of commons for years; it has changed its organization from centralistic to decentralized and the emergence of a distributed (poly-centric) alternative is seen as an organic process following the further growth of the commons in the first to third stage.

Commoning and the humane city

Participation, collaboration, cooperation and distributed government are based on the idea of sharing of goods, spaces, commodities and power, as Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman explain in their seminal book Sharing Cities. In the first chapter, they outline the sharing scene in San Francisco that has emerged during the last decade as an alternative for owning. However, the idealist dream of sharing cars, apartments and more eventually became reality in capitalist ventures called Airbnb, Uber and Lyft. Or as stated in the aforementioned publication by Sharable, Sharing Cities. Activating the Urban Commons: Once billions of dollars in venture capital started to flow into these once fragile and communitarian-minded startups, the concept of sharing became a moral cover for a particularly aggressive extension of business as usual (page 30).  Something happened that the initiators did not fancy bud made them billionaires, which in retrospect can be considered as a wrong form of institutionalization.

The alternative? Think of a group of people who share their apartments to create affordable opportunities for holidays. To manage the rapid growth of the group they hire some staff and opt for a cooperative organization the venture. This policy kept prices low instead of allowing billions to leak away to the management and the shareholders. Another example? A collective affordable car hailing service, with well-paid drivers also owned by the users. In both cases radically different forms of institutionalizing in comparison with Airbnb, Uber and Lyft help to maintaining the original spirit of sharing.

Given the benefits to society from sharing, the California way of doing it has derailed:  A common service from and for its users has turned into a privately-owned company for the benefit of a few.

Unfortunately, all shared or communal activities that become successful and start generating financial benefits can derail in the same way as soon as the financial value for a few displaces the initial value for the commoners. Shared or communal owned activities lose their humanizing potential as soon as they become subservient to their financial returns. Commoners must be vigilant about this threat, secure the right of its participants decision-making rights, and share its proceeds and continue to reap the benefits of the shared activity, whatever it may be.

Below, I summarize how the principles of sharing, commoning, and cooperating contribute to a city becoming humane.

Actions to align principles of good sharing, commoning and cooperating to the development of a humane city

1. The best contributions to revitalize the social fabric in neighborhoods come from citizens themselves. Professional support is necessary to make these germinate and to ensure continuity and a wide range.

2. Neighborhood projects intended to increase the interaction between residents are preferably based on practical activities such as cooking, learning, making, repairing; always in a safe, welcoming and friendly environment. Participation in projects is easily accessible. They are usually near people at home and have tangible benefits.

3. People who participate more often in these types of projects feel that they are getting stronger and this process also contributes to greater group awareness (social capital), which has beneficial effects for the neighborhood as a whole.

4. There is no point in trying to increase the political participation of the poorest citizens in particular. However, a much larger group can be mobilized and is willing to be involved in activities that improve the (social) infrastructure of the neighborhood in a sustainable way, which can be a first step towards forms of political participation.

5. Urban commons must draw up clear rules with regard to their tasks, the supervision of these tasks and their implementation and the way in which citizens keep control

6. Once citizens’ initiatives mature, they can best be organized in the tradition of “commons”, where clear agreements are needed between citizens, market parties and the government.

7. The fact that citizens’ initiatives aimed at building or renting out houses can significantly reduce prices is a sign on the wall of the limited possibilities of the market to act in the public interest.

8. In cities there is room for thousands of commons-like activities. As soon as their number exceeds a certain threshold, the city administration should consider adjusting its structure and delegating responsibilities.

9. The growth in the number of citizens’ initiatives could, in the long term, result in more networked forms of urban governance.

Written by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Header image: Elinor Ostrom. Photo: Prolineserver 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.


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