#urbancommons questions

I’m a new to the study of the commons, so the conference in Bologna that I’m currently taking part in has been a plunge into the deep end – fortunately the pool is very inviting.  You can see my slides here.

What strikes me from today (6/11/2015) is that there have been a lot of very sensible and practical solutions to some of the problems of contemporary presented. Many urban areas could, and more importantly, should be managed as common resources. The analysis is strong, there are many market failures that need to be addressed not by more of the market but by non-state public control and ownership. There has been a tendency to spear the market failures but less about why this has not resulted in an immediate turn to the state. The State that was so important in the post-1945 period has also had some very significant failings, and these have been reflected in the case studies. I was struck that in one paper about urban renewal a key activity was shaming the inspectors who were supposed to enforce building standards and then ensuring that the civil legal action necessary was followed through.

Many of the case studies have focused on the trials and problems of trying to establish new institutions, as well as the perils and pitfalls of this process. The State does remain important in this as it is very clear that the State can help nurture the new commons it can also frustrate them. A key task in the near future will be persuading the State to enable the transition to an empowered public. Case studies here suggest that there have been flashes of, and experiments in, this happening but more is going to be necessary.

The problem is the transition to the change where commons are more widely distributed and seen more widely as a way of engaging with our problems (07/11/2015).  Many of the solutions that are being proposed are variations on those that have a long history; communes, eco-villages, shared workshops, and co-housing.  Quite a bit of the discussion has become to focus on voluntarism, that we need to change conscious and appeals to our inner nature.  There is not a lot of critical analysis that actually engages with how change can happen, and how it currently takes place.  Quite a lot of the discussion actually refers back to an imagined past, we are to ‘revert’ to our earlier pattens of behaviour and to find our co-operative selves.  

Tine de Moor started with a call for a critical understanding of the commons and a specificity, which has only been patchily applied.  There is an often visible tension between idealists who are picking from examples from across the world and then projecting how those might become, well, more common.  As those who are concerned with the work of building the commons day-by-day, piece by piece. The discussion of squats, hackers and solidarity movements it is a long way from the pastures that remain in the background as the historic paradigm.  

Rather what is being discussed very often is emergent forms of collective action that we are struggling to describe, that overlap with the commons but also challenge that model.  The speed, depth and scope of changes in contemporary societies are actually unprecedented, and accepting that would liberate quite a lot of this discussion.  So I’m sure that commons will play a role in the future re-configuring of city, the state, and citizenship but it remains uncertain quite what that role should be. 


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