City as Commons

Within the ‘City as a Commons’ concept, citizens are making a claim to govern urban resources according to their own rules and norms. As commons, these urban resources fall outside of the public-private dichotomy. Under this approach, the city is understood as a shared resource and all inhabitants are productive commoners, co-constructing the various commons that fit their passions, skills and needs.

The emergence of the city as a commons responds to the modernist urban model, which brought about the transformation of small and public to large and private, displacing the citizen as the owner of the city. Answering to Saskia Sassen's (2015) question “Who owns the city?”, the 'city as commons' approach claims citizens as rightful owners. Citizen cooperation schemes are key to this vision, so that people are able to participate in decision-making processes concerning their environment and the politics that manage it. This model, aligned with other sustainable city approaches, considers the city as a process rather than a fixed system. As the former, the city and its citizens, as well as their needs, are constantly adapting and evolving. The city itself is constantly reformulated to respond to these changes, reinforcing the need for a governance structure that is capable of doing the same.

The emergence of contributory communities around the commons challenges the existing system, including city policy, market strategies and civil society organization and management. The commons constitute a new claim with regard to the exercise of power and on how resources are governed. The 'city as commons' requires: a ‘partner’ city that enables and empowers commons-oriented civic initiatives; generative market forms that sustain the commons and create livelihoods for the contributors; and facilitative types of support from civil society organisations (Bauwens and Niaros 2015). These poly-governance structures of participation and deliberation consist of at least three levels (commons, state and market) but can be even more, as the work of Foster and Iaione (2016) has suggested referring to the ‘quintuple helix’ model.

Many cities in Europe have taken turns towards participatory, commons-oriented policies. Ghent was the first city that attempted crafting an urban commons-focused transition plan on the city level. Bologna is the exemplary case for developing new institutional processes for public-commons partnerships. Barcelona is also significant since, through the En Comú coalition, it illustrated how movement activists can work with political parties to create new platforms that foster greater participation in governance. Further, the case of Frome illustrates how local councils can play a key role in enabling communities to increase their resilience and face their challenges. However, it should be highlighted that there is an increasing number of integrated citizen coalitions that operate in cities with little or no support from local authorities.

Explore the City as Commons concept:

Explore Bologna and Ghent City as Commons initiatives:


Last updated