The City as Commons: The Conference


To judge from the fascinating crowd of 200-plus commoners who converged on Bologna, Italy, last week, it is safe to declare that a major new front in commons advocacy has come into focus – the city.  The event was the conference, “The City as a Commons:  Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance,” hosted by LabGov (LABoratory for the GOVernance of the Commons), the International Association for the Study of the Commons, the Fordham Law School’s Urban Law Center and the Roman law school LUISS.

While there have been a number of noteworthy urban commons initiatives over the years, this event had a creative energy, diversity of ideas and people, and a sense of enthusiasm and purpose.

The City of Bologna was a perfect host for this event; it has long been a pioneer in this area, most notably through its Regulation on Collaboration for the Urban Commons, which invites neighborhoods and citizens to propose their own projects for city spaces (gardens, parks, kindergartens, graffiti cleanup).

What made this conference so lively was the sheer variety of commons-innovators from around the world.  There was an urban permaculture farmer…..a researcher who has studied the conversion of old airports into metropolitan commons….an expert on “tiny home eco-villages” as a model for urban development…..Creative Commons leaders from the collaborative city of Seoul, Korea….an expert describing “nomadic commons” that use social media to help Syrian migrants find refuge with host families in Italy.

We heard from a city official in Barcelona about Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform that is attempting to remake the ways that city government works, with an accent on social justice and citizen participation. As part of this new vision of the city, the Barcelona government has banned Airbnb after it drove up rents and hollowed out robust neighborhoods into dead zones for overnight tourists.

The Brooklyn-based project, 596 Acres, has mapped a large inventory of vacant public land and is actively helping neighborhoods convert parcels of land into functioning commons for community gardens, recreation and learning.

The Ubiquitous Commons project is a prototype legal/technological toolkit designed to help people control how the personal data they generate from countless devices may be used, especially in urban contexts.

Because the conference was the first thematic conference of the IASC on the urban commons, there were quite a few academics at the conference, especially younger ones.  So there were quite a few academic paper presented that applied the conventional principles about commons as resources

Two notable keynote talks included commons activist Silke Helfrich and Italian design strategist Ezio Manzini. Helfrich’s talk, “Imagining the (R)Urban Commons in 2040,” set forth her vision of what a city as a commons would look like in the year 2040.

In another thoughtful talk, Manzini, founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation for Sustainability), a network of university-based design labs, stressed that cities must be seen as a world of relationships.  Urban commons must be “conceived as fluid forms,” he said. “To enact them we should focus on enabling conditions, not on fixed designs.”

For those inclined to some serious reading about law, theory and urban governance, check out Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione’s forthcoming essay in the Yale Law and Policy Review, which lays out a systemic and detailed overview of the idea of the city as commons.  The essay proposes a range of collaborative and polycentric governance strategies for cities.

Michel Bauwens and I shared an onstage conversation about “open cooperativism,” and especially the new efforts to devise “platform cooperativist” models to challenge Uber, Airbnb and other “death star” platforms that exploit social communities without reinvesting in them or sharing the benefits.

There was so much energy unleashed by this conference that I expect many more initiatives on urban commons in the future — and a new, more focused dialogue on what it means to manage a city as a commons. Fortunately, a second IASC thematic conference on urban commons is already being planned, for 2017.

Lead image by Michela Mauriello

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