Back to the ‘Urban Commons’? Social Innovation through New Co-operative Forms in Europe

Professor Michael Keith and Dr Igor Calzada, MBA               

The fourth and final workshop from the series ‘Bridging European Urban Transformations’ took place on 12 February 2018. The title of the workshop was ‘Rethinking the Urban Commons in European City-Regions’ (#RethinkingCommons), and it revolved around the core idea of the ‘commons’, which was developed by Ostrom (2000) and Hardin (1968) among many others. The event piqued the interest of a wide range of stakeholders.

Although the ‘urban commons’ has increasingly appeared as a topic of scholarly inquiry related to the urban politics and governance of social innovation in austerity, the research questions, methodologies, and disciplinary approaches necessary to more fully conceptualise and develop the idea of the ‘urban commons’ and the new challenges and facets it introduces into the ongoing study of the commons in diverse fields have had no sustained attention (Ostrom, 1990, 2000, 2010).

Generally speaking, the problem of governing resources commonly used by many individuals has been long discussed in economics, migration, data science, smart urbanism, and environmental studies literature in certain European city-regions (Calzada, 2015; Calzada & Cowie, 2017; Keith & Calzada, 2016, 2017; Kitchin, 2015; Labaeye, 2017; McCullough, 2013; Nordling, Sager, & Söderman, 2017; Parker & Schmidt, 2016; Subirats, 2012). Depending on the type of common resource, attributes of the group of users, and the property regime, collective action can either preserve the commons or deplete it. Privatisation and deregulation of public services, as well as dismantling of the traditional residential community due to rapid urbanisation, currently affect the condition of commons resources in urban areas. As cities become denser from large-scale urban development projects, the ‘urban commons’ is either privatised or left as open access. While the latter puts the commons at risk of wasteful usage, the former limits access to shared resources to a group of privileged users at the cost of excluding others.

Based on the assumption the collectivity is incapable of managing common resources, conventional solutions to the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968) have focused on either centralised government regulation or privatisation of common pool resources. However, Ostrom has shown how collectivities (from locals in Africa to Western Nepal) have developed institutional arrangements for effective management of common resources, challenging established economic theory.

Extrapolating (and somewhat expanding) Ostrom’s analysis to the level of cities (Amanda, 2017; Bieniok, 2015; Bollier, 2015, 2016; Bollier & Helfrich, 2016a, 2016b; Borch & Kornberger, 2015; Bruun, 2015; Dellenbaugh, Kip, & Bieniok, 2016; Foster, 2011; Foster & Iaione, 2016; Harvey, 2011; Iaione, 2017), it seems evident that rethinking the notion of the urban ‘commons’ will likely generate interesting and diverse perspectives in the European city-regional scope: How are the boundaries of the ‘commons’ defined in an urban context defined? What processes regulate the use of the urban ‘commons’? What exclusionary processes are involved in such definitional and regulatory processes, and what organizational and political implications follow in the wake of such endeavours? What are the cognitive, symbolic, technological, and material infrastructures that render the ‘commons’ and citizens visible thus constituting them as objects for governance not only individually but also collectively (Calzada, 2018)? What conceptions of value(s) constitute the urban ‘commons’, and how do managerial ‘smart’ technologies organise these values?

These days, it has become fashionable to talk about the ‘urban commons’, and it is clear why. Traditional conceptions of the ‘public’ are in retreat: public services are at the mercy of austerity policies, public housing is being sold off, and public space is increasingly non-public. In a relentlessly neoliberal climate, the commons seems to offer an alternative to the battle between public and private. The idea of commonly owned and managed land or services speaks to a 21st-century sensibility of participative citizenship and peer-to-peer production. In theory, at least, the ‘commons’ is full of radical potential to implement social innovations in European city-regions.

Hence, the workshop sought to better understand the idea of urban ‘commons’ as a way to reimagine the city as a ‘commons’ and as a ‘platform’ (Bollier, 2016; Borch & Kornberger, 2015; Foster & Iaione, 2016) at different European city-regional scales. In addition, the workshop explored the circumstances and contexts in which urban commons emerge, what contributes to their durability and effectiveness, and what undermines them. In the current policy context, entirely dominated by urban data in the realm of the so-called ‘smart city’ hegemonic discourse, the workshop was presented as an invitation to reflect upon and think beyond the technocratic idea of the city by reclaiming public space and urban ownership as an experimental means. to address the urban ‘commons’ (Calzada, 2018; Labaeye, 2017). This could be achieved through:

  • social innovation and anti-austerity public policy that generates resources through alternative finance and harnesses social energy through grassroots mobilisation, and
  • meeting needs through community provision in land use, housing and rental cooperatives, cooperative food initiatives, etc.

The workshop stressed the importance of transitions as a new urban ‘commons’ narrative for urban infrastructure (housing, food, mobility, etc.), collaborative civilian empowerment, network governance, alternative finance, urban co-operatives, energy grassroots mobilisation, data-driven sovereignties/devolution, urban welfare, and urban development. Additionally, the workshop focused on questions of urban governance and explored different frameworks for governing common urban resources.

Hence, after considering the above, it was also discussed whether another urban governance model is possible—a ‘third way’ of urban experimentation between state and market (Keith & Calzada, 2017; Keith & Calzada, 2016; Dellenbaugh et al., 2016).

The workshop kicked off by introducing its own concept of the ‘commons’. The first speaker was Professor Joe Painter from Durham University, who presented the findings of the ESRC-funded project ‘The Urban Politics and Governance of Social Innovation in Austerity’ (PUrSI). By addressing the fields of social innovation as ‘wicked problems’ – such as rising life expectancy, growing diversity of cities and countries, stark inequalities, rising incidence of long-term conditions, behavioural problems of affluence, difficult transitions to adulthood, and constraints on wellbeing – Professor Painter framed social innovation as (i) innovation with social purpose, (ii) innovation by social means, and (iii) innovation in the social. He went on to link social innovation and the urban ‘commons’ as a way to overcome risks of enclosure and exclusion through civic crowdfunding. Moreover, he argued that the commons enables social innovation by setting-up social hubs, creative spaces, and knowledge-sharing platforms. Thus, ‘commoning’ could be seen as an aim of social innovation. He then presented several projects and initiatives around co-housing, communal gardens, swap shops, and free shops—particularly ongoing cases in Berlin, Newcastle, and Athens on finance, food, arts and culture, and refugees, which are part of the PUrSI project. He concluded that the purpose of the commons should be the re-shaping of social relations and forms of social organisation as a means to respond to austerity without being determined by it.

Nele Aernout then presented her PhD results on reproducing housing commons. Her presentation discussed the required government involvement and differentiated forms of communing in a rental cooperative. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many countries in Europe adopted Ebenezer Howard’s cooperative garden city model: this combined collective land holding and participatory principles with housing that aimed to connect qualities of urban and rural living. Starting in the late 1990s, new literature on the commons developed that was not based on natural resource management but rather new types of commons in danger of privatisation and enclosure, such as knowledge commons, social commons, intellectual commons, and urban commons (Bollier, 2015; Harvey, 2011). In her conclusion, rather than arguing that commons will be destroyed or enclosed in cases of an increased government involvement (Harvey, 2011) or free-ridership (Ostrom, 1990), she showed a differentiated understanding of governance and participation within the commons. Building on the notion of ‘differential commoning’, she shed light on the way housing commons were reproduced in a rental cooperative in the Brussels Capital Region. The management of the cooperative creatively used the new institutional arrangements of the umbrella organisation to re-identify the cooperative notion, turning a regular social housing company into a cooperative via increasing resident involvement in the board of directors, installing local management committees, and developing social cohesion projects in line with co-operative values.

The next section of the workshop focused on critical reflections on the urban ‘commons’. Professor Jonathan Davies from De Montfort University presented a paper on governing in and against austerity as part of the CURA’s (Centre for Urban Research on Austerity) ESRC-funded project ‘Collaborative Governance under Austerity: An Eight-Case Comparative Study’. His paper focused on the empirical case-studies of cities such as Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne (Dandenong), Montreal and Nantes. Professor Davies asked whether ‘communing with the State’ was feasible, to which he responded with some ongoing initiatives such as fearless cities and the international municipalist summit 2017 in Barcelona. In the case of Barcelona, he underlined the importance that Barcelona’s En Comú coalition (radical left) took office in 2015 by appointing Ada Colau, former leader of the anti-evictions platform, as the city mayor. According to Professor Davies, this case depicts a radicalisation and democratisation of co-production and commons. Furthermore, he described the long tradition and historical conditions of leftist social and political movements with strong municipalist and cooperativist orientations. Moreover, this orientation sparked an emergence of a ‘youth precariat’ in employment and housing. Educated, politicised, and networked populations suffered and were hit fiercely by the crisis. In this set of factors, the success of new left populist discourse blended politicised precarity, re-valorisation of the local state, and the obstruction of the far right. Professor Davies set out the priorities for such movements based on the commons: (i) to reassert public leadership in economic development by containing the private sector; (ii) put social rescue, social inclusion, and the reconstruction of basic rights at the heart of public action; (iii) reaffirm the right to the city; (iv) enhance democratic control through citizen participation and political co-production; and ultimately, (v) emphasise recovery of ‘the common’ (state and non-state) alternatives to neoliberalism. He concluded that Barcelona was restoring the right to the city with programmes such as the Special Tourist Accommodation Plan (PEUAT), where regulation and public control of tourism have been identifying areas to decrease and limit tourism through sanctions on Airbnb. Likewise, regulations to stop licenses for new hotels and bans on converting flats for tourists across the whole city are, among many others, some of the strategies that Barcelona has undertaken. In summary, he stated ‘commoning’ is political and operates in, with, and against the state, and he argued that it is unclear when communing is a sustainable end in itself or a step towards something else.

The next speaker, Line Algoed from the VUB, presented a paper exploring processes of gentrification and displacement in informal settlements in Latin America. Particularly, she focused on solutions developed at the neighbourhood level that increase the security of land tenure for residents of informal communities. In her presentation, she showed how collective forms of land ownership can protect informal communities from gentrification while promoting participation in neighbourhood improvement and local economic development. Her main case study revolved around the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust (CLT) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where residents from seven informal communities have established the world’s first CLTs in an informal settlement.

The third and final section of the workshop examined several initiatives and methodological advancements in the field of the ‘urban commons’. To begin this section, Professor Beth Perry from the University of Sheffield presented on ‘Governing the Commons: Tensions, Tyrannies and Types in Coproduction’. Her paper argued that ‘the commons’ implies features such as collective action, self-governing mechanisms, and a high degree of social capital. From this point of departure, she questioned whether coproduction could be seen as a way to realise the knowledge commons. She defined coproduction as a paradigm shift in the relationship between science and society, and a term underpinning the different practical manifestations of coproduction could be either coproduction of service delivery and governance or coproduction of research. Nonetheless, she noted some criticisms on coproduction including the risks and limits of coproduction, such as pollution, and coproduction as a ‘tyranny’. Thereafter, she presented a methodological framework entitled the ‘Action Research Collective’ (ARC) as a prefigurative space made up of a new organisation formed for collective action: a space for institutional innovation. In this methodological framework, she suggested that coproduction often is based on trust and pre-existing relationships. Thus, ARC seeks to embrace difference and diversity and forge a new collective. In this regard, she presented four modes of coproduction: (i) liberal/rational, (ii) communitarian, (iii) radical, and (iv) agonistic. She concluded that the ARC reveals issues and tensions among stakeholders and these struggles are part of the process of communing. Professor Perry stated the knowledge commons is always negotiated and it is made also through acting together towards common goal through which pathways, trade-offs and compromises can be reached.

The last speaker, Alessandra Manganelli from the VUB, presented a paper on ‘Food Commoning in Practice: Investigating the Hybrid Governance of Local Food Networks in Brussels’. She began with an introduction of food as a commons and its relation to the urban by focusing on examples from Brussels. Thereafter, she reframed ‘food commoning’ initiatives through hybrid governance. The examples presented from Brussels were collective gardens in Etterbeek, Jardins de la Rue Gray, and Chant des Cailles, among many others. A special analysis was made regarding the www.Bees-Coop.be initiative. The core concept was ‘Hybrid Governance’, which questioned what types of governance tensions condition the development of local food initiatives and their specific forms of out-scaling and upscaling. These initiatives are not only driven by their own value systems or organisational modalities but also embedded in a net of relations with actors, organisations, and multi-level institutional structures. She concluded by stating that a number of diverse initiatives starting from the bottom-up or local level always suggests the following question: what kind of institutions are needed to facilitate connectivity at different scales to foster food urban cooperatives?

And so, amidst discussions on social innovation, austerity and the creation of entrepreneurial cooperatives, the commons is again at the heart of the urban governance debate.

Citation: Keith, M. & Calzada, I. (2018), Back to the “Urban Commons”? Social Innovation through New Co-operative Forms in Europe, Urban Transformations ESRC report on 12th February 2018 Workshop entitled ‘Rethinking the Urban Commons in European City-Regions’. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.22227.27688/1

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