This article was published on Transform!Europe’s site on 22 November 2019. Its author is Birgit Daiber, who is a former member of the European Parliament and former director of the European Office of the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation in Brussels.
Due to the local character of most Commons initiatives it’s obvious that cities are preferred places. From social housing to urban gardening to digital citizenship to public cultural spaces to educational initiatives to healthcare-centres to direct farmers-consumers-cooperatives to workers’ cooperatives to self-organised cooperatives of working poor in mega-cities of the Global South – we find all kind of activities related to the Commons. They are initiated by groups of citizens often in conflict with local authorities – but there are growing numbers of examples where municipalities take responsibility to create spaces for citizens’ initiatives and help them to grow – well understanding, that active participation of citizens in production and decision-making are bringing better results than bureaucratic hierarchic regimes.
Examples from Europe
A number of initiatives on urban commons are currently underway within Europe, started variously by specific groups of citizens or by municipalities working on participatory democracy. These include projects such as decentralized use of regenerative energy sources, social housing, digital democracy, urban gardening, open spaces for culture and art, among others.
P2P-Foundation (Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives) is proposing new forms of public-commons partnerships and developing a general urban-commons transition plan for cities. They ask
‘1) what can cities do to respond to the new demands of citizens as common 2) what their role may be in facilitating a social-ecological transition; and 3) what institutional adaptations would favour such a role.‘ (Bauwens, Niaros 2017).
As an example, the mayor of the city of Naples, de Magistris, responded to the demands of the Italian movement Bene Comune, to create a department for commons in his municipality. Further, the City Council changed the municipal statute by inserting ‘commons’ as one of the interests to be protected and recognised as a fundamental right. Backed by these municipal policies, movement activists occupied more than 20 abandoned buildings for social, political and cultural use.
Another example is from Barcelona, where a participatory citizen’s platform, Barcelona en Comú, has started to work on a decentralized and democratic controlled use of renewable energy sources at the municipal level. Briefly, okupas is about occupying abandoned houses and giving them to families who lost their homes during the European crisis. Its activists also try to save the old popular boroughs at the seaside from being taken over by international investors. Once she became the major of the city in 2015, Ada Colau extended cooperation to many progressive socio-ecological local movements. One of the first international activities undertaken by her administration in 2016 was the signing of a proclamation on open and refugee-friendly cities against the inhumanity of the EU and its member states, together with Mytilene (Lesbos) and Lampedusa (Sicily). In 2017, Barcelona was offered to host the Fearless Cities. International Municipalist Summit with representatives of 180 cities arount the world. They raised the slogan ‘democracy was born in cities and here we’ll win it back’ and declared to create global networks of solidarity and hope ‘in the face of hate, walls and borders’. Like many other cities in the world, Barcelona is thus keenly embracing practices of urban participatory democracy.
Berlin awakening. Every year about 40,000 people arrive in Berlin and try to find a living. Beyond the hype of glamour and politics Berlin is a working-class city. Traditionally most of its citizens do not own houses. Still today 86% live in social housing or rented flats. As in all globalized cities, real estate run by hedge-fonds became ‘the’ big business in Berlin. In the last five years rents increased by about 50 %. In this extremely tense situation, activists remembered a wonderful and never practised article in the German Constitution: Art. 15 states ‘Land, natural resources and means of production may for the purpose of socialisation be transferred to public ownership or other forms of public enterprise by a law that determines the nature and extent of compensation.‘ Since March 2019 activists campaign for a referendum to expropriate big private housing-companies, and it’s going rather well…
Examples from the Global South
There are also numerous examples from cities of the Global South. The world urban development will be much more concentrated in mega-cities of the Global South than in cities of the Global North. It is of vital interest for the survival of the planet to recognise urban commons initiatives in these cities and to cooperate with them. Just to name a few of them:
The city of Jakarta implemented a disaster response management by using crowd-sourced civic data. It is called PetaJakarta. Jakarta is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. In addition, every year it gets flooded during monsoons, since 40 percent of the city is at or below sea level – a problem that is going to intensify with the expected rise of global sea levels due to climate change. Interestingly, Jakarta has one of the highest concentrations of active Twitter users in the world and an overall high use of mobiles. Given this context, a public-private partnership between Twitter, Jakarta Emergency Management Agency, the University of Wollongong (Australia) and others led to the development of CogniCity, an open-source intelligence framework that manages spatial data received by mobile messaging apps. The first platform built based on the data provided by CogniCity was PetaJakarta, a Twitter-based crowdsourcing map for flood data. It relies on Twitter to organize and display real-time information about flooding to the city’s residents. It allows users to geotag Tweets to indicate hazardous flooded areas, which are verified and added to a map of government flood alerts that anyone can use. The platform has received international praise from organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Conway 2017).
In the Philippines, social housing programmes for the urban poor and informal settlers are being designed and implemented by a consortium of organisations. The housing backlog in the country is currently up to five million. Almost 1.2 million of the urban poor live in precarious and untenured housing in informal settlements. Yet, others live on large estates of government owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) or on private lands, without legal tenure. Kilos Maralita (KM) is a network of community associations comprising informal settler families. The associations are registered as either housing cooperatives or homeowners’ associations. Other members of KM are federations of urban poor peoples’ organizations. Currently, KM focuses on assisting informal settlers’ associations to prepare comprehensive social housing project proposals, also called ‘peoples’ proposals’, and negotiates for finance with governmental agencies, particularly the Social Housing Finance Corporation. Furthermore two NGOs, the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD) and the Institute for Philippine Cooperatives and Social Enterprise Development (IPCSED) provide KM with various forms of organizational and business development assistance. Up to this day, 13 housing projects proposed by KM affiliates have received final approval for funding with a total cost of over P4.4 billion (about 80 million Euros), thereby supporting about 10,400 families (Villanueva 2017).
Last not least, a closer look on some initiatives in India:
India’s mega-cities are not very different from European cities in their structure. But they are completely different in seize and in their social composition. In Indian cities, about 30% of the inhabitants are living under poverty line. They are working poor: street-vendors, domestic workers, waste-pickers, construction workers, and others, women, men and children trying to secure a livelihood, living in slums or even without any shelter in the streets. The inner Indian migration process from rural to urban areas continues by different reasons (privatisation of common land, political disregard of the needs of rural populations, natural disasters, bad harvests and others). Therefore, Commons initiatives concentrate as well on rural initiatives to save commons land for small farmers and initiatives for the right to the city for the working poor in the big cities. Just to name two out of many, many urban initiatives:
Indu Prakash Singh is working since many years against poverty and homelessness in Indian big cities and reports on campaigns of the working urban poor, fighting for dignity and reclaiming themselves as city-makers. City-makers fight for shelter rights and residence permits. The initiative is now active in over 20 cities, including Delhi. (www.gcssfs.org)
The SWaCH wastepickers cooperatives in the cities of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchward were successful in setting up cooperatives for door-to-door waste collection and waste pressing instead of dumping. SWaCH enabled 1,500 women wastepickers to become service providers for households in Pune city. This considerably improved their conditions of work and upgraded their livelihoods, effectively bridging the gap between households and the municipal waste collection service. (www.swachcoop.com) By the way: Very often women fighting misery and winning some ground (in all parts of the world) invest in education of their daughters and sons.
The cases discussed above exemplify the diversity of practices involving urban commons, initiated variously by citizens, municipalities, local administrators, and traditional NGOs. Many of the projects start as acts of disobedience against commodification of space, resources, and basic services, but every such project is only the beginning of a process. After gaining experience in democratic participation and management, the stakeholders often move on to develop new initiatives. The need of the hour is to recognise these successful alternatives and use the lessons they provide to redefine our theory and practice of sustainable urban development.
Bauwens, M./ Niaros, V. (2017), Changing Societies through Urban Commons Transitions, P2P-Foundation in cooperation with Heinrich-Böll-Foundation Berlin, online: commonstransition.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Bauwens-Niaros-Urban-Commons-Transitions.pdf
Conway, R. (2017) Petajakarta: Desaster Response Management Through Crowdsourced Civic Data in Sharing Cities. Activating Urban Commons l.c.
Foster, S. R. and Iaione, C (2016), ‘The City as a Commons’, Yale Law and Policy Review, 34 (2), pages 282-349.
Rubio-Pueyo, V. (2017), Municipalism in Spain. From Barcelona to Madrid and Beyond, Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation, New York Office.
Shareable.com (2017), Sharing Cities. Activating Urban Commons.
Sharp, D. (2017), Seoul Metropolitan Government Ordinance on the Promotion of Sharing in Sharing Cities. Activating Urban Commons, l.c.
Villanueva, E. E. (2017), Financing Options for the People’s Proposals for Socialized Housing, Institute for Popular Democracy.
Photo: Commons initiatives in the cities (source: Birgit Daiber)
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