What makes a commons? Cities and the concept of ‘urban commons’.

There is a new interest in the management of cities and the conceptualisation of shared urban spaces as commons. Scholars and activists have recently been exploring the management and governance of shared spaces such as city streets, green spaces, parks, public squares, and even community gardens (allotments). This is not to say that interest in the governance of urban spaces is anything new – concerns go back to the first city-states – which were just as concerned with how people can govern the areas they shared in-common as we are today. This renewed interest, particularly in Italy, is slightly different. Firstly, it has been sparked by concerns over austerity policies, which have seen cutbacks in local authority budgets resulting in reduced spending or even loss of services and shared spaces. When this is also aligned with increasing corporate power, selling off land and property to private developers, and privatisation of urban spaces then the level of citizen concern is rightly raised. Secondly, it is using the concept of commons to explore solutions.

Who owns the streets? Valletta, Malta
Who owns the streets? Valletta, Malta

One recent outcome of this renewed level of interest is the Bologna Regulation based on the notion of the city as a commons. The ‘Bologna Regulation on Public Collaboration for Urban Commons’ was adopted by the city towards the end of 2014, providing an opportunity to explore different collaborative approaches to the management of certain types of urban space and property (including both public and private property) for a period of one year. The regulation is one product of “The City as a Commons” project supported by Fondazione del Monte di Bologna e Ravenna (www.fondazionedelmonte.it) but is an idea also being taken up by other Italian towns and cities.
Although the regulation includes the term ‘urban commons’ in the title the way in which urban commons are defined is not entirely clear. The regulation seems to be more about creating new or alternative collaborative (and co-management) arrangements between city administrators, ‘active’ citizens, and private property owners for managing certain kinds of space within the urban area. The definition from the Bologna Regulation defines urban commons as:
“…the goods, tangible, intangible and digital, that citizens and the Administration, also through participative and deliberative procedures, recognize to be functional to the individual and collective wellbeing , activating consequently towards them,……, to share the responsibility with the Administration of their care or regeneration in order to improve the collective enjoyment.”

The Regulation (which in the UK we might consider more as an ‘administrative agreement’) goes on to lay out provisions for ‘shared management’ of both public and private spaces. It would seem the definition encompasses what we would also think of as private and public goods, as well as commons. Some may argue that the provision of certain public goods (such as clean air and green spaces) is a right of every citizen, and that city governments should, as a matter of course, provide for them. The arguments then centre around the level of provision, management, and cost. But support for public goods provision is often one of the first casualties of local government spending cuts, precisely because the benefits are widely spread, often relating to ‘wellbeing’, ‘intangible’ and thus not easily measured – certainly not in terms of the monetary values on which decisions are made. So, this movement to explore alternative approaches to the governance of cities is an interesting one, using the notion of ‘commons’ as a means of altering the way citizens and administrators perceive, and manage, shared urban spaces. It certainly deserves more attention as it has the potential to alter the way we conceive of, design, and use urban spaces.

Managing urban space - Belgrade
Managing urban space – Belgrade

An event close to home is doing just that. There is currently an exhibition at the LSE in London entitled ‘Designing the urban commons’ (until 11th July) showing some of the more stimulating submissions to a competition which “…invited anyone to re-imagine spaces in London as places for collaboration, sharing and collective ownership”.
The key question we should be asking is: what makes some aspect of urban life, whether a physical resource such as an open space, a street where children play, a park, a service such as a library, or less tangible assets such as public art, a commons resource? The answers are not simple – not all urban spaces are commons – and if managed as commons are potentially more likely to fail to deliver the desired benefits than if managed as public or private goods. We are addressing some of these issues in our new on-line short course ‘Managing the commons’ where we apply Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for commons governance to a range of ‘new’ commons resources such as urban spaces, genetic resources, biodiversity, and the internet.

Sharing space - Belgrade
Sharing space – Belgrade

Cities are complex socio-economic systems and the idea of a ‘city as a commons’ is an interesting one. Those living in an urban area all share the same space, and all benefit from (or suffer under) the same system of city management. It makes sense that those sharing these experiences should have some say in how their lives in the city are governed – and alternative forms of collaborative management and/or governance arrangements are one way forward.
‘What makes the city a commons?’ At this point I would say it is not entirely clear – but it is a fascinating area for exploration – and one that has the potential to increase the ‘value’ we get from our urban spaces through changing the way we perceive and govern the space around us.