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Rethinking the Urban Commons in European City-Regions

Event type: UT
Date: 12/02/2018

Bridging European Urban Transformations Workshop Series in Brussels 2016-2018

Co-organised in partnership by the University of Oxford – Urban Transformations  and  VUB – Brussels Centre for Urban Studies
Monday 12 February 2018, 10:00-15:45, Visit Brussels, Zinneke Room, Koningsplein 10-11 Place Royale – 1000 Brussels, Belgium. To register, please visit the event webpage here. For more information, please contact Dr Igor Calzada.

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, there has yet to be sustained attention to the research questions, methodologies, and disciplinary approaches necessary to more fully conceptualize 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 (Ostrom, 1990, 2000, 2010).

Generally speaking, the problem of governing resources used by many individuals in common 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 property regime, collective action can either preserve the commons or deplete it. The condition of common resources in urban areas is currently affected by privatization and deregulation of public services, as well as by dismantlement of the traditional residential community due to rapid urbanization. As cities become denser from large-scale urban development projects, the “urban commons” is either privatized or left in 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 a cost of excluding others.

Based on the assumption that the collectivity is incapable of managing common resources, conventional solutions to the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968) have focused on either centralized government regulation or privatization of common pool resources. Challenging established economic theory, however, Ostrom showed how collectivities (from locals in Africa to Western Nepal) have developed institutional arrangements for effective management of common resources.

Extrapolating (and somewhat expanding) Ostrom’s analysis to the level of cities (Amanda, 2017; Bieniok, 2015; Bollier, 2015 and 2016; Bollier & Helfrich, 2016a, 2016b; Borch & Kornberger, 2015; Bruun, 2015; Dellenbaugh, Kip, & Bieniok, 2016; S. Foster, 2011; S. R. Foster & Iaione, 2016; Harvey, 2011; Iaione, 2017), it seems evident that rethinking the notion of the “urban commons” is likely to generate interesting and diverse perspectives in the European city-regional scope: How are the boundaries of the commons 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 and hence constitute them as objects for governance, not just individually but also collectively (Calzada, 2018)? What conceptions of value(s) constitute the “urban commons”, and how do managerial ‘smart’ technologies organize them?

These days, it has become fashionable to talk about the “urban commons”, and it’s clear why. What we traditionally conceive of as “the public” is 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 land or services that are commonly owned and managed speaks to a 21st-century sensibility of, to use some jargon, 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 will seek to better understand the idea of “urban commons” as a way to rethink the city as a ‘commons’, as a ‘platform’ ( Bollier, 2016; Borch & Kornberger, 2015; Foster & Iaione, 2016) at different European city-regional scales, under what circumstances and contexts urban commons emerge, what contributes to their durability and effectiveness, and what undermines them. In a policy context entirely dominated by urban data in the realm of the so-called ‘smart city’ hegemonic discourse, this workshop is presented as an invitation for reflecting upon and beyond the technocratic idea of the city by reclaiming public space and urban ownership in different fields as an experimental way to address the ‘urban commons’ (Calzada, 2018; Labaeye, 2017) through:

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

The workshop will stress 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 will focus on questions of urban governance and will explore different frameworks for governing common urban resources.

Hence, after consideration of the above, we should also ask 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 UT programme is directed and coordinated by Prof Michael Keith (Director of COMPAS & Co-director of the Future of Cities Programme, at the University of Oxford). This is the final workshop of the series ‘Bridging European Urban Transformations 2016-2018’. To conclude, this workshop series:

  • aimed to bring about academics and non-academics to reflect on urban challenges affecting cities and regions in Europe.
  • emphasized an interdisciplinary dialogue, bridged the gap between theory and practice, and encouraged knowledge exchange between academics, policymakers, citizens, and activists.
  • built on the first, second, third, and fourth Brussels workshop of the ESRC Urban Transformations programme and formed part of a series of interventions in partnership.

Here are the executive summaries of the previous workshops:

  • 1st Workshop ‘(Un)Plugging Data in Smart City-Regions’ (#UnpluggingData):


  • 2nd Workshop ‘Experimenting Urban Living Labs (ULLs) Beyond Smart City-Regions’ (#ExperimentingULL):


  • 3rd Workshop ‘Scaling Migration Through European City-Regions’ (#ScalingMigration):


Hence, building on the emerging body of ongoing initiatives, the workshop Rethinking the Urban Commons in European City-Regions will bring together a group of European academics and policymakers to reflect on and debate about the potential of the “urban commons” and social innovation through European cities and regions.

This workshop considers the participation of a broad scope of participants, such as activists, policy-makers, academics, companies, social entrepreneurs, and citizens to react upon the challenges austerity policies are posing in our European cities and regions by not only overcoming side effects of the lack of a comprehensive governance framework but also empowering city-to-city learning in order to remodel Europe through its cities and regions.


This one-day workshop commences with an introduction from Prof Michael Keith, co-ordinator of the Urban Transformations ESRC portfolio, and Prof Bas van Heur, co-ordinator of the Brussels Centre for Urban Studies. This will be followed by six slots and speakers who are experts in the field: three from the Urban Transformations ESRC portfolio projects and three from the VUB.

If you are interested in participating in the workshop please register to the workshop via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/rethinking-the-urban-commons-in-european-city-regions-tickets-41603618543

For further questions, please contact the coordinator directly: igor.calzada@compas.ox.ac.uk

This workshop builds on the first, second and third Brussels workshop of the ESRC Urban Transformations programme and forms part of a series of interventions in partnership. The workshop series entitled ‘Bridging European Urban Transformations’.


  • Dr Igor Calzada, MBA (UOxf-UT)


@icalzada & igor.calzada@compas.ox.ac.uk

  • Prof Bas Van Heur (VUB-BCUS)

@basvanheur & bvheur@vub.ac.be


Preliminary Agenda:

10:00-10:20 Welcome: Organisers

Prof Michael Keith (UOxf-UT) & Prof Bas van Heur (VUB-BCUS)

10:20-10:40 Policy Welcome:

The Urban Commons in the EU

Mr Richard Tuffs (ERRIN Advisor) 

10:40-11:40 Section 1/3: Introduction to the “Urban Commons”

  1. 10:40-11:10 Rethinking Social Innovation

Professor Joe Painter (Durham University)


  1. 11:10-11:40 Reproducing Housing Commons: Government Involvement and Differentiated Forms of Commoning in a Rental Cooperative

Nele Aernout (VUB)


11:40-12:00 Debate 1/3: Introduction to the “Urban Commons”

12:00-12:20 Coffee-break & Networking 

12:20-13:20 Section 2/3: Critical Reflections on the “Urban Commons”

  1. 12:20-12:50 Critical Reflections on Austerity, Innovation and the Urban Commons?

Professor Jonathan Davies (De Montfort University)


  1. 12:50-13:20 Re-Commoning Land in Informal Settlements as Strategies Against Dispossessions

Line Algoed (VUB)


13:20-13:40 Debate 2/3: Critical Reflections on the “Urban Commons”

13:40-14:20 Lunchtime

14:20-15:20 Section 3/3: Social Innovation Initiatives and the “Urban Commons”

  1. 14:20-14:50 Governing the commons: types, tensions and tyrannies of coproductive governance

Professor Beth Perry (University of Sheffield)


  1. 14:50-15:20 Food Commoning in Practice. Investigating the Hybrid Governance of Local Food Networks in Brussels

Alessandra Manganelli (VUB)


15:20-15:40 Debate 3/3: Social Innovation Initiatives and the “Urban Commons”

15:40-15:45 Wrapping-Up and Conclusions

In cooperation with:

  • ERRIN (European Regions Research and Innovation Network)

Host institution:

  • Brussels Academy




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Bollier, D. (2015). Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm.

Bollier, D. (2016). The City as a Commons.   Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3itmhDuem8

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (Producer). (2016a). The City as a Commons. Retrieved from http://bollier.org/blog/spanish-translation-%E2%80%9Cthink-commoner%E2%80%9D-now-published

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (Producer). (2016b, 19 March 2017). Patterns of Commoning, The Commons Strategies Group. Retrieved from http://bollier.org/blog/spanish-translation-%E2%80%9Cthink-commoner%E2%80%9D-now-published

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Nordling, V., Sager, M., & Söderman, E. (2017). From citizenship to mobile commons: reflections on the local struggles of undocumented migrants in the city of Malmö, Sweden. Citizenship Studies, 1-17. doi:10.1080/13621025.2017.1341660

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