Designing the Urban Commons

A few weeks ago, John Powell from CCRI was in London, and had the opportunity to quickly visit the ‘Designing the Urban Commons’ exhibition at the LSA Atrium Gallery. John’s visit was in part related to the forthcoming CCRI short course on Commons Management and Governance – ensuring he keeps abreast of the increasingly topical area of ‘The Commons’. He has finally had a chance to write a short piece about his visit…


The recent urban design competition exhibited at the LSE in London included a fascinating mix of ideas around the theme of the ‘Designing the urban commons’. The exhibition, which was open in June and July of this year, displayed “the most stimulating and challenging responses to Theatrum Mundi’s 2015 ideas competition – Designing the Urban Commons”. The competition invited submissions that would ‘re-imagine spaces in London as places for collaboration, sharing and collective ownership’. The ten winners of the competition on display included the following:

Rainbow of desires

Envisaged as a set of pavilions on a large housing estate which would provide space for workshop activities based on the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ as a means of promoting social and political change, as well as communal spaces including a library, cinema and open kitchen. The aim of the project being to provide space for activities, which would strengthen and empower the local community.



This is sub-titled as a ‘manual for radical inclusivity’ and relates to planned regeneration in part of Tottenham in London where local community groups are claiming the a ‘policy of social cleansing is being used to facilitate a land grab by developers’. The aim of the manual is to provide a means by which local action can be coordinated through provision of community workshops, public social spaces and residential start-up spaces (using self-build and voluntary approaches). One suggestion is for a community land trust to enable collective ownership of space.


Saturday Commoning Fever

The project focuses on regulations that govern what people can and cannot do in the streets. The aim is a website that provides simple explanations of ‘street rules’ that will inform but also enable local residents to ‘question and challenge’ legislation when it does not allow them to undertake activities that they would like to in ‘their’ streets.

Re-inventing the Lodge

The project focuses on re-vitalising the use of a derelict park-keepers lodge in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, 31 acres of semi-wild woodland in the Mile End area of London. The project envisions turning the lodge into a community cafe and events space. The aim is a partnership between an existing organisation called the shuffle Festival, which has already raised money through a series of events and a crowd-funding campaign, to create a business organisation that will generate income, employ and train local people. A key aim of the partnership is to give the project more influence locally that will protect it from appropriation, either by government of the private sector.


Explores the potential for a network of new spaces for ‘urban commoning’ by re-using the ‘underused spatial remnants of London’s industrial age’ for tree planting to create urban forests which will also act as carbon sinks. The approach would be based on local community planting to engage local people and ‘instil a sense of ownership’.



The Service Wash

The Service Wash re-imagines an expansion of the functions performed by local launderettes, many of which have declined in use as more people get washing machines and driers in their homes. The idea is to create partnerships with homeless charities to provide a range of facilities for the homeless, not just clothes washing but also showers and haircuts, and small lockers to store personal items, also providing a potential address. Seeing the launderette as a facility collectively ‘owned’ by its users would be a goal.




There were two interesting features of the exhibition which came across strongly. First, was the interdisciplinary nature of many of the projects in terms of the design teams, which demonstrated strong mixing of architects, planners, community activities, artists and others, which made for an eclectic mix of ideas in the projects on display. Secondly, was the focus of many proposals on different forms of collective action, including partnerships between different organisations, and bringing individuals in communities together to empower those who don’t have a voice, or provide a means to resist or engage with more powerful actors. Given the focus of the competition perhaps this should not be too surprising. But it was striking to see that the focus of many of the projects was more on the collective action aspects than on the actual creation and utilisation of new spaces, or, ‘re-imagining’ of alternative uses for existing spaces. Whereas the visual aspects of the posters tended to illustrate spaces and alternative uses, the text was all about working together, and finding ways of engaging with communities and with those in authority, in order to attain the desired changes in use of urban space.

There were no grand designs that required major re-interpretation of how urban space should be utilised, or how urban spaces could be conceptualised as a ‘commons resource’; the majority of ideas on display were based on small-scale local level changes that would improve people’s lives and that could be accomplished at relatively low cost. The notion of ‘urban commons’ seem to have been interpreted in terms of engaging in different forms of collective action to achieve local improvements, or in some cases, protect valued neighbourhood resources. This is perhaps a useful lesson for those of us interested in exploring the notion of urban commons, as creating ‘new commons’ is more about how we interact and work with each other to create alternative institutional arrangements, than it is about re-designing the actual physical spaces that we inhabit.


Commons Management and Governance – Short Course Series

The CCRI is running a new series of online short courses, focusing on different aspects of commons: their management, governance and sustainability. The courses will be delivered jointly by the Countryside and Community Research Institute of the University of Gloucestershire (UK) and the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (IIS-UNAM).

Two courses will commence on September 28th. More information can be found via the links.