Introducing commons principles into public space management

Last week, I spoke at the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development’s Zentrenwerkstatt. The title of the panel was “Öffentlicher Raum als Allmende? – Mehr Nutzung im Kontext von Wertvorstellungen, Verhaltensmustern und Regeln” (Public Space as a Commons? – More Use in the Context of Values, Behavioral Patterns and Rules). The official documentation will be published in German in a few weeks, but I wanted to present my talk in English here, since I think we covered some important topics.


Public Space – A Tragedy of the Commons?

It’s easy to describe an overused public space as a “tragedy of the commons.” In 1968, Garrett Hardin coined this term, describing it as the overuse of a shared space (in his case a pasture) by a group of users. However, what Hardin described was not a commons, but rather a pasture used by a group without rule negotiation. However, commoning, the internal negotiation of rules, is a central and fundamental component of commons. It’s this process that makes commons different from other resource use arrangements. The management of a resource as a commons can help to avoid overuse when certain rules of thumb are observed. Cities also present a range of challenges to commons projects which bear special consideration.

Commoning, the internal negotiation of rules, is a central and fundamental component of commons.


Group Characteristics

The first concept that I want to talk about is Dunbar’s number, the theoretical cognitive limit on the number of people with which a single person can maintain social relationships. This means that there is a limit on the number of people that one person can recognize and name (e.g. even when seeing that person out of context). While some people can remember as many as 250 people, for most people this limit is about 150. That means that groups with less than 150 people tend to have stronger natural social controls – because everyone in the group can recognize the other members by sight, it’s easier to prevent free-riding by outsiders and enforce rules within the group. That means that, above all for resources which can be depleted, user groups with less than 150 members can help to prevent overuse. The question is how to apply this principle in cities with high population fluctuations. Anonymity is damaging to commons. If users don’t know who is part of the group, how can they prevent free-riding? And if users don’t feel like the rules are being enforced, they themselves will be less inclined to follow them.

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Commons as a Bottom-Up Process

Commons cannot be imposed by the administration – they must come from civil society. As long as these projects aren’t blocked or threatened by outside sources, these projects tend to be fairly self-sustaining. This is due to the intrinsic value that these projects have for their users. These projects can have several benefits for city administrations. The users take responsibility for the space, which can represent a relief of sorts for urban administrations. In addition, group formation can also lead to the creation of social capital in the neighborhood. However, group formation can also lead to exclusion – district managers need to bear this in mind when supporting commons initiatives.

Commons projects in cities often begin with a catalyst – something in the environment inspires someone to start an initiative or project. This person is usually especially motivated or inspired, and motivates others to join in making the idea a reality. These groups attempt to realize their ideas whether the city adminstration helps them or not – indeed, often even when the administration and other outside actors try to hinder them! A city administration can however benefit from these initiatives, and, at the same time, provide new opportunities for participation and inclusion in the city.

These groups attempt to realize their ideas, whether the city adminstration helps them or not – indeed, often even when the administration and other outside actors try to hinder them!


What Can City Administrations Do to Promote Commons?

  1. Recognize initiatives as beneficial to the vibrancy of the city and as a source of innovation and impulses which can be beneficial for the positive development of the city.
  2. Try to reduce internal administrative and bureaucratic hurdles (i. e. creating a central contact person, a handbook for participation, or a roundtable of employees from involved departments in the administration). Those who start initiatives are often highly motivated – challenges to implementation on a technical administrative level often lead to informal initiatives which are then threatened from outside because they “didn’t follow the rules.”
  3. Create a central point of contact for ideas from civil society – open the door for innovation from the bottom up.
  4. Create catalysts for innovation, for example a competition for citizen solutions to issues concerning public space.


  • Commons initiatives present the opportunity to build social capital in neighborhoods. However, it’s important to consider that groups can also work to exclude, not just include.
  • Commons initiatives come from civil society, and are usually fairly self-sustaining due to the motivation of their users and the intrinsic value that commons projects embody. The simplification of administrative hurdles can go a long way to promote these projects and the benefits that they can offer cities.
  • For commons projects with more than 150 users, tiered participative structures can help to support direct democratic participation.
  • In areas with high population fluctuation, “custodians” can help to ensure that rules are enforced and participation is possible, even for those not able to take part in the commoning process.

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