During the summer of 2017, I travelled throughout France. Now I am sharing the stories of the commons I met along the way, never knowing what I would find in advance. These articles were originally published in French here: Commons Tour 2017. The English translations are also compiled in this Commons Transition article.

The Assembly of the Commons of Grenoble: building the city together

It was with great pleasure that I met Anne-Sophie and Antoine during my journey, while taking a break in the beautiful city of Grenoble. We happily shared the practices of the Lille and Grenoble assemblies of the commons over a coffee at a sidewalk cafe.

Anne-Sophie and Antoine were both elected to positions in city hall. They shared stories with me of citizens engaged in a dynamic of counterpower and, after being elected in 2014, of their difficulty in taking on an institutional posture. Changing culture is not always easy! But this is what also makes the Grenoble Assembly of the Commons so special, born of the meeting of two dynamics.

The first of these two comes from Nuit Debout, within which a “Commission of the Commons” was created in 2016. The idea was to discuss the management of commons as a common responsibility: not only the responsibility of public authorities, but also of the area’s inhabitants.

The second dynamic, on the part of city hall, was the philosophically interesting idea of investing in a space between the private and the public, to make room for citizens in the public debate. The key here is that this idea has not been abandoned at all, in fact it unites activists and elected representatives in the same assembly today.

Last March, during the Biennale of Cities in Transition, partners and associations were invited to the assembly. About fifty people from various backgrounds participated in this first assembly, including Sylvia Fredricksson and Michel Briand, both well-known French commoners who came to share their experiences.

What the elected representatives underline is that even if they have the will to make a difference in the direction of greater citizen involvement in public life, it is not so simple. Legislation is not adapted at all, particularly with regard to risk management (the insurance framework does not exist). On top of that, officials are not so aware, and not trained to work directly with citizens. Faced with this, the elected representatives asked the services to work on these points and advance the texts and practices.

Nevertheless, among the completed projects at the town hall level, there have been agreements created for occupying public spaces such as shared gardens, for example. The assembly also discussed the idea of writing a charter on housing, a bit like in Bologna (Italy), where a charter of urban commons was drafted and signed by some forty Italian cities.

The city also participates in a “migrants’ platform” to accompany reception initiatives.There are also participatory budgets: every year, 800K€ in investment is opened to citizens’ projects. 106 projects proposed by the Grenoble region were selected in 2017. On the cultural side, we can cite the desire to take art out of museums with the Street Art Festival, whose traces can be found all over the city walls.

To date, the Assembly of the Commons has set up four separate working groups which meet asynchronously at regular intervals:

  • Natural Commons
  • Knowledge Commons
  • Urban Commons
  • Commons of Health and Well-being

The spirit of commons in Grenoble has a long history. After the Second World War, unlike many other places, the city had, for quite a while, retained its own operators to manage electricity and water, which made it a very special case.

After being privatized in the 1980s, water came back into the public domain after a citizens’ lengthy legal battle with certain elected environmental officials and some employees of the water authority. This was the first battle won in France for water municipalization, along with the first French users’ committee to make the citizens’ involvement in water management last. The whole world visits Grenoble for its water management model. And on the electricity and gas side, the operator is a mixed-economy company but the public (the city of Grenoble) is still the majority shareholder.

This civic expertise and spirit of solidarity continue today, and are embodied in the city’s desire to be part of a concrete, lasting relationship between two communities that “do with others”, all the others…

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