I’m going to be giving several talks this fall about urban commons, so today I’m going to delve into what makes urban commons different from other forms of commons.
First of all, let’s rewind and discuss the characteristics of commons as a whole.
A quick and dirty definition of commons
Commons have three parts: people, resources, and rules.
- People: The “commoners.” This is the group of individuals who are involved in the production and reproduction of commons. This group usually forms organically and is self-defined. The “commoners” are responsible for collectively negotiating and enforcing the rules about how the commons resources are managed and used.
- Resources: Commons resources can be material or immaterial. Broadly speaking, commons resources are a non-commodified means of supplying some good or service for the commoners.
- Rules: These resources are not managed following market principles (private ownership, profit maximization, etc.). They are also not managed by an administrative body. They are managed by the commoners themselves, who negotiate and renegotiate the rules about boundaries, use forms and intensities, and penalties for breaking the rules. This includes the prevention and punishment of free-riding.
These three characteristics can vary in a number of ways, but the characteristics of the resource itself are usually decisive in how the rules about its use and managment develop. Resources can be categorized based on four main characteristics. Here’s how I described it in the introduction to our book, Urban Commons: Moving beyond State and Market:
- “Depletability, which is related to the question “can the resource be ‘used up’ or not?” An example would be an urban garden (which can be depleted through overuse) versus radio transmissions (whose use by one person or group does not reduce the amount of the resource available for others);
- Excludability, related to the question “can access be restricted?” An example here would be a collectively run child-care facility (excludable) versus clean air (non-excludable);
- Rivalrous use, with the related question “does one user’s use of the resource take away from others’?” Too many visitors to a public park may impair the enjoyment or utility of other users, who appreciate the park’s silence (rivalrous). Squatting or participating in a road blockade, however, does not necessarily change the utility of such commons for other users (non-rivalrous)—to the contrary;
- Regulation, with the related question being “is the resource regulated? Are there rules governing the use of the resource?” Providing households with electrical energy in self-governed fashion arguably involves a more explicit formulation of rules than hitting the dance floor at a neighborhood celebration.”
What makes urban commons different or special?
So now on to urban commons. Over the last ten to fifteen years, the demands on cities and their resources have been growing, in particular the pains felt by the urban population as a result of privatization and the market forces inherent in global economic markets and profit-maximization strategies. Once-public resources and infrastructures are being privatized, protections guarding the price levels of basic commodities are being weakened, public spaces are being flooded by private interests. It seems completely natural that the concept of urban commons as a way to reclaim control over the fundamental aspects of urban life should emerge in just this period. Urban commons present the opportunity for the urban population – the users of a resource – to have a bigger say in how it is managed. It provides the possibility to reframe the costs inherent in life in the city based on their use value and maintenance costs, and not the market-driven exchange value. For many, it means the possibility to access these resources at all, as privatization and increases in their market-driven exchange values push them slowly out of reach.
But even such a promising concept should be approached cautiously. Urban commons are not a cure-all; in fact, they can even lead to an intensification of existing inequality problems.
As I examined in this article with Martin Schwegmann, “due to the land-based nature of most urban commons and the large pressure on scarce resources in cities, urban commons are usually excludable and have multiple rivalrous uses. Consider an urban gardening project. The decision to start an urban gardening project on an abandoned lot means that other possible uses cannot be implemented there (rivalrous use). In addition, the urban gardening community could agree among themselves to be a closed group and erect a fence (excludability). The commoners may still engage in commoning in their closed, self-organized group, however this project may raise questions about access to resources, despite the fact that it is a commons. In addition, non-land-based urban commons can be depletable. Consider the resource “quiet;” in a house or housing block, the users get together to agree on what times of night to be quiet, and how to deal with people who go against the rules. Anyone who has been kept up by a loud party will know the depletability of quiet in a big city.”
In addition, as examined in detail in her chapter of our book, Majken Bieniok has posited that group size and composition play an important role in urban commons. She brought the concept of Dunbar’s number to bear in the urban commons debate. The idea that we can only cognitively recognize on average 150 people (i.e. recognize their faces and place how we know them) puts inherent limits on urban commons. If a group of commoners is larger than 150 people, which is entirely possible in cities, how are rules enforced, and how do users prevent free-riding and overuse? The high population fluctuation in cities presents an additional stumbling block.
Furthermore, commons projects run the risk not of empowering those who lack political and social capital and are otherwise disadvantaged in the existing system, but rather further strengthening the role of dominant social groups, in particular educated, middle-class, white individuals. While I was working at the Humboldt University, one of the master students in our department completed her thesis about the Right to the City network in Hamburg. She found that the vast majority of the network (more than 90%) were educated, white, middle-class German citizens. This recent article about cohousing in the United States repeats this pattern. Two data points don’t make a conclusive argument, but they do raise an important question:
Can the commons idea be usurped by the middle class in order to secure access to and use of urban resources, possibly to the exclusion of minorities, the urban poor, and other structurally disadvantaged groups?
The depletability and multiple rivalrous uses surrounding many urban commons lays the groundwork for this possibility, though it is absolutely not a given. I’ll be exploring this topic more deeply in its own article soon.
Urban commons face a number of challenges that differentiate them from other commons such as open source software, fisheries, and air quality. By recognizing these particularities and making them a topic of discussion, I believe that urban commons can more fully realize their potential for equality, participation, and just resource accesibility in the city.
 David Bollier, “The Commons: A Neglected Sector of Wealth-Creation,” in Genes, Bytes and Emissions: To Whom Does the World Belong, ed. Silke Helfrich (Berlin: Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, 2009), 5.
 Yochai Benkler, “The Political Economy of Commons”, in Genes, Bytes and Emissions: To Whom Does the World Belong, ed. Silke Helfrich (Berlin: Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, 2009), 1.