Urban commons: Why now?

The topic of urban commons is booming. Since we published Urban Commons: Moving beyond State and Market four years ago, there has been a strong increase in projects and publications about urban commons. What is it about the current Zeitgeist that makes now the right time for this topic? I have a theory…

In agrarian societies, risk and costs are shared among both the extended family and the local community. Temporary individual resource poverty, such as that caused by a bad harvest, can be distributed across a larger group. Put simply, a farmer whose crop failed could be assisted by others in his or her community or extended family based on his or her familial ties and social capital. In addition, the transfer of income between those who are employed and those who are not (including children, the elderly, and those who are temporarily or permanently not able to work) also took place through these channels. In the ideal case, the risk and costs were spread through a relatively large network of actors and the system was fairly resilient (i.e. it had a high capacity to withstand most shocks).

In industrialized societies, risk management and income transfer between workers and non-workers were collectivized through the state institutions that we know of as “the welfare state.” This collectivization through the state was a fundamental prerequisite for the expansion of the industrial workforce. State-run healthcare, unemployment, welfare, and other programs now served the place of the extended family and community in absorbing shocks such as illness or loss of a job. In addition, state institutions such as pensions and parental benefits ensured the income transfer between workers and non-workers such as new parents and the elderly.

Now, in late-stage capitalism, we face a new situation in which responsibilization has replaced the welfare state, and pensions and other state-provided safety nets are being continually scaled back. I propose that this situation is fertile ground for the collective management of resources by users outside of state and market structures as a way of both self-empowered collective risk management and cost management. Seen from this perspective, and from the perspective of global urbanization tendencies, urban commons make perfect sense.

Urban commons provide a new form of security against shocks by allowing the dynamic, non-profit-oriented management of resources by users. Engaging in commoning practices builds social capital and communities with dense connections with one another, thus building resilient systems of mutual assistance. In addition, the non-profit orientation of commons provides access to resources at a much lower cost than traditional market mechanisms, opening resource access to a much wider group of potential users – a vital aspect in the age of growing income inequality.

The collectivization of resources and their management by users presents one of the best ways to ameliorate the pains of the shrinking welfare state and the new contours of capitalism in the 21st century and provide equitable and self-empowered resource access to a larger proportion of the population.

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