Changing Societies through Urban Commons Transitions

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* Report/Book: Changing Societies through Urban Commons Transitions. By Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Niaros. P2P Foundation and Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2017


This is a more reflexive document on the experience in Ghent, with chapter 3 focusing on Ghent itself.


This report examines the re-emergence of the urban commons as both a bottom-up emergence by citizens/commoners and a radical municipal administrative configuration. Starting with an exploration of the relationship between cities and the commons, with a particular focus on the recent revival and growth of urban commons, we attempt to answer the question of why urban commons are so crucial for a social-ecological transition. Then we review grassroots initiatives for urban commons transitions both in the global north and south, but with specific attention towards the municipal coalitions of Barcelona, Bologna, Naples, Frome and Ghent.

As a conclusion we propose an institutional framework for urban commons transitions. We look to answer the following questions: i) what can cities do to respond to the new demands of citizens as commoners; ii) what their role may be in facilitating a social-ecological transition; and iii) what institutional adaptations would favour such a role.

This report was written by Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Niaros and co-published by the P2P Foundation and Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Executive Summary

Version without graphics. For the graphics, see


In the context of this report, the commons are viewed as a shared resource, which is co-owned and/or co-governed by its users and/or stakeholder communities, according to its own rules and norms.

It is therefore a combination of:

  • an ‘object’ of cooperation, or resource, which is shared or pooled;
  • an activity, i.e, commoning as the maintenance and co-production of that resource; and
  • a mode of governance, the way decisions are made to protect the resource and allocate usage, which is related to property formats.

Defined in such a manner it is clearly distinguishable from both the private and public/state forms of managing and owning resources. Commons can be found in every social arrangement, in every region and time period. This wider framework allows us to see the re-emergence of urban commons in our particular historical conjuncture.

To begin with, tribal societies as well as the class-based societies that emerged before capitalism have relatively strong commons, and they are essentially the natural commons. They co-exist with the more organic culturally inherited commons, such as folk knowledge. These are social systems that do not systematically separate people from their means of livelihood.

With the emergence and evolution of capitalism and the market system we see the second form of commons becoming important, i.e. the social commons. When market-based capitalism becomes dominant, the lives of the workers become very precarious, since they are now divorced from the means of livelihood. This creates the necessity for the generalization of this new form of commons, distinct from natural resources, which are essentially aimed at mutualization of risk and strengthening the collective power of the workers.

Since the emergence of the internet, and especially since the invention of the web, we see the birth and rapid evolution of a third type of commons: the knowledge commons. Distributed computer networks allow for the generalisation of peer to peer dynamics, i.e. open contributory systems where peers are free to join in the creation of shared knowledge resources, such as open knowledge, free software and shared designs. But we should not forget that knowledge is also a representation of material reality, and thus, the emergence of knowledge commons is bound to have an important effect on the modes of production and distribution. We would then emit the hypothesis that this is the phase we have reached today, i.e. the ‘phygital’ phase in which we see the increased intertwining of ‘digital’ (i.e. knowledge) and ‘physical’.

The first locations of this intertwining are the territorial commons and the urban commons. Urban commons are the locus where digital knowledge and culture, and the material re-organization of a post-capitalist mode of exchange and production, converge into new ways of organizing provisioning systems where citizens are ‘commonifying’ the infrastructure needed for this transition.

We believe that cities are becoming a crucial transnational governance structure in the current conjuncture. It is clear that urbanisation is a very strong trend in the demographic organization of our world.

The urban commons offer challenges for the actors and institutions within the city context in the following ways:

  • a contributory democracy is a challenge to representative democracy: Since the French Revolution, our legal and political system has ignored the commons, which had been radically enclosed by capitalism, and our institutional systems are largely based on the private-public dichotomy. The emergence of contributory communities around the commons is a challenge to the existing system. Citizens and their associations are making a claim to govern a resource ‘according to their own rules and norms’, and as commons, outside of the public-private dichotomy;
  • a generative economy is a challenge to market power: Capitalism was born with the enclosures of the English and Scottish countryside, which were previously commons, and has thus been associated as a system that is hostile to commons. Generally, competitiveness often requires extractive practices towards nature and people. The re-emergence of urban commons requires a generative economy for its further health and expansion which succeeds in creating meaningful livelihoods that are compatible with the natural commons and the survivability of humans on the planet; and
  • the commons is a challenge to traditional civil society organisations: With the emergence of the labour movement in the 19th century, and with the wave of nonprofits and NGOs since the sixties, civil society has been organized. But the commons creates a different type of social organisation. Unlike the ‘scarcity’ view that motivates traditional NGOs, where the logic is how to direct scarce resources to solve a particular problem, the new logic is one of ‘abundance’, i.e. platforms are built that allow people to direct their energy towards collective problem-solving.


The existence of sophisticated urban commons policies that facilitate local initiatives in the Global North is evident. Many cities in the western/northern world have taken turns towards participatory, sharing and commons-oriented policies. However, there is an increasing number of integrated citizen coalitions that operate in cities, with little or no support from local authorities. These projects are multi-year, multi-stakeholder, and integrative. Such projects are very careful in defining their inner governance and relations with external parties, such as governments and businesses, to avoid being co-opted or captured by them. Quite a few of them are struggling to adapt the proper governance model, between ‘horizontalist’ aspirations and ‘vertical’ needs for institutionalisation. Most projects are now moving to poly-centric governance models. Whether bottom-up or top-down, all projects include participatory processes, which points to a deep cultural shift. In addition, local initiatives in the Global North have a strong interest in both social and ecological sustainability.

Contrary to the case of Global North, cooperation between local initiatives and governmental institutions, especially at the national level, is problematic for nearly all projects in Global South. On the one hand, the indifference of the authorities is evident even if a project is successful and has a positive impact on the city. At issue here is the inability of governmental personnel to understand the logic of commoning, especially when it is ‘extra-institutional’ i.e. happening outside the sphere of both government, business, as well as ‘classic’ NGOs. Further, the majority of the projects in Global South are ‘integrative’, meaning that they are not ‘one issue’ projects that focus on one dimension, but they have holistic visions of both the problem and the methods needed to overcome them. Community integration and collective intelligence is balanced and integrated with individual ‘passionate’ contributions.

This report explores cases of city councils that offer alternatives to the incumbent municipal form. The aim is not to be all inclusive but rather to explore the different approaches of city councils that are aligned with the proliferation of the commons and facilitate citizen participation in city-making. The cases chosen in this review are not random but represent different logics at work that cities can choose from; they are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary.

Barcelona is significant because it is the expression of a new radical municipalism that seeks to bypass the current limitations of the nation-state and has a majority political coalition and movement, En Comú, that refers explicitly to the commons. It illustrates how movement activists can work with existing political parties to create new platforms that foster greater participation in governance.

Bologna is the paradigmatic case for developing new institutional processes for public-commons partnerships. Through this case, it is illustrated that new kinds of experimentalist and adaptive governance and legal tools are needed to allow citizens and other actors to enter a co-design processes for the city. Naples is a more radical version, explicitly catering for commons-based occupations and claims on public spaces. Milan presents a version less radical and more mainstream practice of the ‘integrated sharing city’, which has the merit of seeing the various forms of mutualization of infrastructure, mainly collaborative consumption, as a key strategic development for any city. The case of Frome illustrates how local councils can play a key role in enabling communities to increase their resilience and face their challenges, while it is not following the political agendas of a party since a coalition of civic forces has ousted traditional political representation. Last but not least, Ghent is the first attempt to craft an entire urban commons focused transition plan on the city level.

Ghent is not an isolated case of course. The developments we have witnessed there are an echo of what has happened in other European, and global cities. We propose new forms of public-commons partnerships, and the commonification of public services that address the weaknesses observed and seek to facilitate a shift from cities having urban commons, to seeing the ‘city as a commons’.


Thinking of social and political change in terms of a commons transition strategy requires a profound rethink of our existing institutional mix, and a somewhat new vocabulary.

This new system follows a new logic:

  • It puts the commons, and not the market, at its center, and civic society becomes the locus of the institutions of the commons. All inhabitants are considered to be productive commoners, co-constructing the various commons that fit their passions, skillsets and needs;
  • The market is transformed towards a generative market, which serves the accumulation of the common, not the accumulation of capital; or alternatively, where the accumulation of capital directly serves the accumulation of the commons; and
  • The state or common good institutions, such as the city and its institutions, are seen as facilitating mechanisms to create the right public frameworks for individual and social autonomy. They enable and facilitate commons-friendly infrastructures. We have called this the Partner State model and can speak of the Partner City as the equivalent on the scale of the urban.

But how do we get from the current market state and market city configurations, to commons-centric institutions?

We propose a strategy in three phases:

  • The first phase is the emergence and formation of alternative commons-based seed forms that solve the systemic issues of the current dominant political economy.
  • The second phase is a regulatory and institutional phase, in which the right frameworks are put in place.
  • The creation of the proper regulatory support and new institutional design, creates the basis for the third phase, i.e. the normalization of the new practices from the margins to the new normal.

The following figure shows the basic collaboration process between commoners and the public good institutions of the ‘partner city’.

As we can see, commons initiatives can forward their proposals and need for support to a City Lab, which prepares a ‘Commons Accord’ between the city and the commons initiative, modeled after the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons. Based on this contract, the city sets up specific support alliances which combine the commoners and civil society organisations, the city itself, and the generative private sector, in order to organize support flows.

This first institutional arrangement described here allows for permanent ad hoc adaptations and the organization of supportive frameworks to enable more support for the common-based initiatives. But just as importantly, this support needs to be strategized in the context of the necessary socio-ecological transitions, which is the purpose of the second set of proposals, as outlined in the following figure:

This figure describes a cross-sector institutional infrastructure for commons policy-making and support, divided in ‘transitional platforms’’ or as we call them on the figure, ‘Sustainability Empowerment Platforms’. The model comes from the existing practice around the food transition, which is far from perfect and has its problems, but nevertheless has in our opinion the core institutional logic that can lead to more successful outcomes in the future.

With this, we conclude the minimal generic structures that we believe a Partner City needs to support a transition towards commons-based civic and economic forms can be integrated in democratic structures of representation, enriching it and complementing it, while stimulating the individual and collective autonomy of its citizens organized as commoners. (

More information

  • Dutch-language report: Commons Transitie Plan voor de stad Gent. Van Michel Bauwens en Yurek Onzia. Juni 2017. In opdracht van de stad Gent.