The Commons Transition Plan describes the role and possibilities for the City of Ghent in reinforcing citizen initiatives.

From March to June 2017 peer-to-peer expert Michel Bauwens conducted a three-month research and participation project in Ghent on the ‘commons city of the future’. The result of that research is this Commons Transition Plan, describing the possibilities and role of the City of Ghent (as a local authority) in reinforcing citizen initiatives. With this, the City wishes to give further shape to a sustainable and ethical economy in Ghent.

Michel Bauwens (58) has already been working for over ten years on the theme of the commons-based economy and society. He is solicited all over the world as a speaker or to give workshops, and is the author of the bestseller ‘Saving the world: With P2P towards a postcapitalist society’. Bauwens led a similar research and transition project in Ecuador. The major French newspaper, Libération, referred to him as the leading theorist on the theme of the economy of cooperation, following the French edition of the book.

The commons is a way to describe shared, material or immaterial property that is stewarded, protected or produced by a community – in an urban context often by citizens’ collectives – and managed according to the rules and standards of that community. It is fundamentally distinct from state bodies – government, city, state – but also from market actors. The commons is independent of, but of course still holds relationships to, the government and the market. Commons as a new form of organisation is exemplified by a variety of initiatives based around production and consumption with the idea of achieving a more sustainable society. This can for example be the set-up of energy cooperatives or shared work spaces for co-working. Examples in Ghent are EnerGent, LikeBirds, Voedselteams, Wijdelen, etc.

All of these initiatives show that ‘urban commons’ is alive and kicking today in the city.

Aim of the research

For the City of Ghent, the central question of this research and participation project was: how can a city respond to this and what are the implications of this for city policy? The goal was to come up with a synthesised Commons Transition Plan that describes the possibilities for optimal public interventions while also offering answers to the question of what Ghent’s many commoners and commons projects expect from the city.

The intention of this assignment is therefore to investigate the possibility of a potentially new political, facilitative and regulatory relationship between the local government of Ghent and its citizens so as to facilitate the further development of the commons.

With this work the researchers have tried to find out what kinds of institutionalisation is fitting to handle the commons well. This means essentially a shift from a top-down approach and old organisational principles such as ‘command and control’, towards a new way of thinking and an approach as a ‘partner city’, in which the city facilitates and supports projects. Of course, sometimes the city must also regulate projects, in the role of a more facilitative government.

Structure of the Commons Transition Plan

In the first part, the report gives a general introduction to the commons which serves to explain why the commons are important in the context of urban development.

In a second part, the researchers look at the global context in which the revival of the commons is taking place, but most of all at the reality of the urban commons in a number of other European cities, which may possibly serve as a benchmark for the city of Ghent.

Part 3 presents the findings in Ghent itself.

Finally, in Part 4, the researchers give their recommendations to the city council.

At the end of this study there are a series of appendices, including an English-language overview of the commons in European cities, written by the Greek urbanist Vasilis Niaros, who was a Timelab resident during the period of our research. The authors of the report, Michel Bauwens and Yurek Onzia, are responsible for parts 1 and 4. Vasilis Niaros wrote the comparative study.

Originally published in

Photo by Dimitris Graffin

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