Depletable vs. non-depletable resources: The case for limiting user group size in urban commons projects

So, I’m just returning from the kick-off workshop for a really interesting project in Basel which is bringing together game design, modelling & commons theory. We had some really great discussions which have given me new insights for the Urban Commons Cookbook. I want to share one of these with you today.

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One of the basic premises behind the work I’m doing in the Urban Commons Cookbook is that there are interdependencies between the characteristics of the three parts of commons: people, rules, & resources. In essence, the process and the group composition will not be identical for resources with different characteristics. (For more about resource characteristics and a general overview, check out this article.)

One main characteristic of resources which shapes how they are managed is depletability: can the resource be used up? Is it finite? A typical finite resource in the urban context is housing. A resource which can be used up might be the produce harvested from a community supported agriculture (CSA) project. In both examples, the resource is finite, however in the case of the produce, the resource can additionally be used up.

When we are talking about finite resources, in particular those which sustain basic life functions such as food or shelter, there is a maximum number of people who can be served by the resource and survive (i.e. if the produce is their only food source). There is equally a limited number of people who can fit into a specific space – this limit is determined by comfort norms & health standards, but of course the tiny house movement is (successfully) challenging these ideas (for more about my take on commons, housing & the tiny house movement, check out my talk here).

The issue of user group size becomes less clear when the finite resource serves an important but non-vital function, i.e. public space.

Whereas a non-depletable resource like wireless internet could theoretically by used by an infinite number of users (assuming magical infrastructure which could sustain that) without conflict between these users, finite resources are pre-programmed for conflict. From a pragmatic point of view, I see two ways forward with regard to depletable/finite urban commons:

  1. If the resource is also excludable (i.e. you can put a fence around it) and a necessary good for survival like food or housing, then the user group should be limited in order to sustainably manage the resource (in a non-profit-oriented and democratic way).
  2. If the resource is excludable but not vital for survival (i.e. land-based commons such as urban gardens), it may still be sensible from a (project and resource) sustainability perspective to limit the user group. If limiting the user group is not desirable, then urban commons in large cities with highly-fluctuating populations might benefit from a “custodian” of sorts. This could be a person or small group which helps to ensure that the rules agreed upon by the community are followed by all users. It’s critical that the “custodian” is part of the group and that the rules are still decided in a non-profit-oriented and basic democratic way.

So, that’s where I am with the theory today. Have a great week, commoners!

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