The cities of today’s world stand at a crossroads, amidst radical social, economic, and technological transformations. They may either become a driving force of creativity, diversity, and sustainability, or a mechanism of inequality, despair, and environmental decay. At this critical moment, we look back at where the agents of change in our cities lie and how we can collectively shape better cities.
From the time of its birth, the city has been held together by the commons- cultural and natural resources like air, water, and habitable earth that are accessible to all members of society. Commons are traditionally uncultivated fields around a town or village that allow the ‘commoners’ of the community the right to sustain themselves by grazing animals and collecting plant resources. Tribes and ancient civilizations show us that natural resources like forests and fisheries are effectively managed by commons-like organizations that allow a self-managed community equal access to it, without private ownership or state control.
Common space is not the same as public space. Urban commons suggest a community of commoners that actively utilize and upkeep whatever they own in common while public space is an asset usually owed by a local or national authority on behalf of the commoners. Public space tends to result in dangerous segregation in cities and a widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’; the ones with and without legitimate ways of participating in public space.
A purely consumption-based approach to public space leaves little room for people to come together over productive activities like producing, growing, decision-making, around which stronger urban communities can form. The growing inequalities of access pose a challenge for urban governments and developers whose interests are harmed by this conflict. Attempts are being made to find more diverse models to apply to the design of urban space, allowing room for forms of gathering and working together in public that lie outside of capitalistic gain.
Urban commons present the opportunity for citizens to gain autonomy over the management of urban resources and reframe city-life costs based on their use value and maintenance costs, rather than the market-driven value. ‘Commoning’ situates citizens as key players rather than public authorities and private markets. There already exist plenty of examples of grassroots projects supporting this new social definition through collective participation in and ownership of urban space. The process offers a third way between public – which does not always mean accessible – and private – which does not always mean closed off.
The presence of ‘others’ in a city brings unquantifiable value through safety, liveliness, and neighborliness, all of which have been conceptualized as intangible assets that cannot be owned but can be produced and shared by citizens collectively. Just like with natural resources, the state can intervene in the management of these common assets, however, no organizational body can allow or deny access to it. Commons do not threaten or compete with the free market but act as porous urban enclaves that are stable, well-defined, and self-sufficient. They serve as a powerful catalyst for associational life in urban communities that aid in building community identity.
The city as a whole can be thought of as a ‘common’. Cities are hyper-complex systems comprising a large variety of individuals, institutions, and processes that give rise to buildings, cultures, and laws that paint the urban realm. Though each individual entity may be owned or controlled in a specific manner, the collective entity that we call a city grows in an uncontrollable way from the synthesis of these individual parts. With no single ownership, the city is therefore a shared entity that we have in common rather than co-own. Each citizen has the responsibility for the upkeep and safeguarding of the city as an urban common.
The sharing of streets and squares results only brings people alongside one another and not into direct contact. By allowing urban space to become malleable and productive through collective projects and cultural practices, the range of spaces away from home and work could be hugely diversified beyond the consumption-based model of the urban public. The future cities might be able to rearrange themselves around sustainable models of public life that involve cooperative action. This is already being witnessed in public squares that hold space for protests as well as self-reliant communities that tackle urban issues like housing, food production, and urban culture.
Commoning represents a new way for citizens to take action in shaping the future of their communities without being locked into profit-driven mechanics of the market or being solely dependent on government agencies for funding. Common space can be considered as a relation between a social group and its effort to define a world that is shared by its members. Common space is not only a space that is governed by all and remains open to all but one that expresses and encourages new forms of social relationships.