Commons and communities: Can urban commons projects lead to more innovative and inclusive urban societies?

Commons, resource use and management characterized by a direct democratic and hands-on approach by users, present a new possibility for the inclusive and innovative development of our cities, despite the numerous challenges that those cities are currently facing. Commons projects open the door for more inclusion in the decision process, empowerment of actors from civil society and a more just allocation and management of the resources that we all use every day. In addition, they provide a possible step towards reducing the hardships of the neoliberal city – blight, disenfranchisement, powerlessness, hopelessness – while also allowing a new niche for the growth of social innovation from the bottom up.

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Commons as a motor of social and cultural innovation

Commons in the city are usually self-started and self-sustained projects, born out of a need or opportunity that was recognized and acted upon by the local community. It may be the community garden created to give new life to an unused plot of land or a housing cooperative whose roots were found in rising rent prices and the desire to live in a self-determined and communal way. Independent of the actual resource in question, the old adage holds true: necessity is the mother of invention. Local actors from the civil society generally have a clearer picture of the needs and opportunities present in their community than their representatives, simply because of their daily proximity to the situation. The presence of a number of local actors in one neighborhood necessitates the negotiation processes inherent in commoning. Deciding what kind of project, how it will be implemented, who gets a say and how decisions will be made are fundamental aspects of commoning, the negotiation of rules that differentiates commons from other types of resource use and management. Commons projects therefore present a breeding ground for solutions to problems that may not be visible to the elected representative or city administration, using local resources and local know-how.

 

Commons as a catalyst for participation in urban policy-making

This form of project development can have two important effects on the role of civil society in the policy-making process: it empowers the actors involved, who are forced to practice negotiation and self-organization, and this empowerment may lead in turn to these groups negotiating a more active form of participation in public policy development.

Commoning, described above as the negotiation of rules that differentiates commons from other types of resource use and management, requires a lot of energy. The commoning process can help empower individuals who are not used to voicing their needs and can help channel and focus latent community energy. The act of negotiating rules with one’s peers and neighbors helps to strengthen the act of speaking up and speaking out. Practicing the discussion of alternatives can help local actors gain experience that they can then use in talking with policymakers. And the community-building taking place in the commons project means that the project’s representative has a strong base of social capital to rely on when negotiating with the city administration.

Commons projects also present an opportunity to make citizen participation in urban development more active and genuine. Self-started projects which enter into negotiations with city administrations begin high on Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation, which identifies eight levels of citizen participation ranging from non-participation to tokenism to citizen power. Since the initiative in commons projects come from civil society, if the city administration enters into negotiations with the commons project, outcomes including participation forms such as partnerships and delegated power are real possibilities, and the door can be opened to genuine changes in the status quo and an improvement in the power balance in urban policy-making.

 

Commons as a possibility for more inclusion

In addition, commons projects can help to make our cities more inclusive. Now more than ever, the pressure is being put on cities to absorb waves of global migration on all levels. Newcomers of all types, whether they are asylum-seekers or those who have moved internationally to take advantage of better job markets elsewhere, face barriers to integration into their new community. A prime example is the language barrier, but ignorance of local social norms and customs may present an additional stumbling block to integration into daily life, the job market and the community. Commons can provide a space in which these barriers can be overcome while cooperating on a concrete task. In the course of commoning, participants learn trust, negotiation and new terminology and have a depth of contact that might otherwise not be possible.

Moreover, commons projects create equality through the commoning process – in true commons projects every voice has the same weight. Through this inclusion as equals, newcomers are presented the opportunity to get involved in their new community, many times independent of their nationality or citizenship status. In turn, this inclusion engenders a feeling of belonging and responsibility in the new community which can greatly aid the integration process and ease the tensions inherent in global migration.

Furthermore, the spatial and social anchoring that commons projects provide can help to work against the fragmenting effects of global mobility and promote pluralistic urban communities. Local commons projects are just that: local. The anchoring provided by local commons projects helps to create meaningful spaces and strengthen the communities that use and manage them. The places and spaces created by commons projects lend richness and authenticity to the modern urban landscape, which is often characterized by commercialization, privatization and homogeneity.

 

Outlook

Commons represent a new form of community-building in the neoliberal city that can lead to more empowerment of and inclusion within civil society. It’s important to identify and protect or, in the best case scenario, structurally and financially support these endeavors, which are often at risk of financialization, privatization and instrumentalization. New administrative structures are needed to protect existing commons and create space and possibilities for new commons projects, and to pave the way for a more just, inclusive and co-produced city.

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