Cities as the Ultimate Commons

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* Article: Commons. By Andre Pusey and Paul Chatterton. Book chapter for: Jayne, M & Ward, K (2016) 'Urban Theory: New Critical Perspectives'. Routledge.



"This chapter introduces the fascinating, long established yet also fast-growing interest in the idea of the urban commons. It is an idea that is being increasingly used in urban studies to explore and illuminate dynamics in the contemporary city. In this chapter we suggest that cities can be regarded as the ultimate commons. Related to this we suggest that the idea of commoning allows us to take a new look at the rich patterns of social life within the city and their potential to deepen the commons. The implication is that the urban commons and its commoners opens up new political imaginaries essential for pressing crises and tackling injustice and transforming urban life beyond capitalism. The commons therefore provides new insights and resources into the nature and potential of contemporary urban social struggles."


Case Study: Lilac Cohousing - Leeds

Andre Pusey and Paul Chatterton on Creating a co-operative urban commons:

"Lilac is a cooperative cohousing project in Leeds in the North of England, whichc omprises 20 homes based around the central common house, all constructed from strawbales timber. Lilac can give is insights into the functioning of the urban commons on three levels - the institutional, the interpersonal and the spatial. At the institutional level, Lilac is legally a cooperative society, which exists for the benefit of its members. This kind of legal form embeds the idea of mutualism. Mutualism is a rich historical traditionen meshed in the 19th century philosophical that states that the association that emerges from interdependence can be beneficial and increase wellbeing. As a doctrine, it outline show people can conduct relationships based on free and equal contracts of reciprocal exchange. It is based on a passionate desire for people to govern themselves and not have authority imposed upon them. From the nineteenth century onwards through a strong cooperative movement, mutualism provided a strong intellectual bulwark against the rampant individualism of the fast-expanding free-market capitalist economy. For Lilac, this legal co-operative framework creates fertile ground for creating practices of commoning and identities as commoners. One particularly notable strand is the use ofdeliberative democracy to ensure that everyone has a voice and decisions are made equally between members. Consensually made ‘community agreements’ are used in areas of community life in the Lilac such as use of shared spaces, food and pets. Members contribute to the self-management of Lilac through various task teams ranging from landscape and food to finance maintenance, while a governing board made up of voluntary participating members overseas the legal and financial aspects.

The second level that we can explore Lilac as an urban commons are through the kinds of interpersonal relations that it promotes. A significant focus of Lilac is on building a strongsense of community and interpersonal ties. In Lilac, residents have a different relationshipto their housing tenure. Rather than being owner occupiers of private property, residents inLilac are members of a co-operative society and lease their homes after paying a member charge set at one third of their net monthly income. Through this regular payment, members can accrue equity in their housing. But the key difference is that the value of thisequity is linked to national earnings rather than average house prices. Therefore, housing in Lilac is not a speculative commodity that can be bought and sold, according to the vagariesof market conditions. Instead, it remains affordable in perpetuity for future generations. This is a significant shift, as it adds up to a housing commons to increased stability in localhousing markets and reducing tendencies towards volatile casino-like local economies. While money certainly does still circulate within Lilac and the project does depend onmuch debt financing, it has attempted to embed less marketised forms of financial and social interactions.

The third aspect of Lilac as an urban commons is the physical layout. What we see in Lilac is a fascinating interplay between private, public and common spaces. One of the key principles of cohousing projects is to combine private self-contained homes with shared spaces. Residents have to continually negotiate the boundaries between the private and theshared as they navigate through their daily lives. One aspects of this negotiation relates to openness and availability in public spaces. The site has been designed to increase natural surveillance and neighbourly encounters, and therefore residents have to set their own boundaries and tactics for moderating levels of interaction with residents and others who might visit the project. Moreover, the boundary of the site represents the gateway to the broader public realm and here access with the general public has to be mediated. While thegrounds of Lilac are private, the general public and not discouraged from entering, which blurs a traditional boundary between public and private, and sets it apart from the rapid growth of privatised housing estates. While Lilac has not fully resolved this issue, there is a greater desire to allow the housing community to be open to the public to reduce concerns about becoming a gated community. What this raises is a key question a further exploration in terms of how each commons mediates its own boundaries between public and private and shared." (

Case Study. The Really Open University - Leeds

Andre Pusey and Paul Chatterton on the new political imaginaries of the commons:

"The Really Open University (ROU) was a radical education project based in Leeds. The ROU were engaged in an experiment in academic commoning and in this section we examine three examples of commons based activity the ROU were involved with. The ROU was formed in January 2010 as a means to both protest against university budget cuts and the increase in tuition fees, but also against the further instrumentalisation andneoliberalisation of Higher Education more broadly. However, the ROU was not interestedin romanticising a golden era of the public university, or in simply defending the existing system, as clearly articulated in an early proclamation of the group that simply stated: ‘we don’t want to defend the university, we want to transform it!’ The ROU’s byline 'strike, occupy, transform!' embodied the groups desire to merge a praxis based on politicalantagonism and resistance with a transformative and affirmative politics of the common.The ROU was a forerunner to the UK student protests that erupted in the autumn/winter of 2010 and the group participated in this emergent movement. An incomplete list of the group’s activities range from constructing a papier mache costume depicting Marx’sconcept of the ‘general intellect’ and storming a live television debate about the tripling of student fees. The production of an irregular free newsletter called the Sausage Factory, taking its name from Marx’s Capital. A three day conference of varied talks, workshops and other activities, around the theme of ‘reimagining the university’, was timed to coincide with a large demonstration against the Browne Review which saw the occupationof a lecture theatre on the University of Leeds campus. Lastly, the establishment of a six month initiative called the ‘Space Project’, which was a city-centre based autonomous education space.The ROU had an ongoing self-consciousness about producing commons – for example one idea explored at length in meetings but which never materialized was a plan for a ‘Knowledge Commons’ website, whereby the commonwealth of academic kn owledgecould be freely shared instead of trapped behind prohibitively expensive paywalls. Part of the intention of this was to expose the tensions and contradictions around academic labour,the production of the academic commons and their capture/enclosure by capital.

The ROU was also engaged in the production of commons in the form of spaces that werecollectively managed, where it fostered a horizontal and collaborative environment. Thesespaces were non-profit and free to participate in. But the ROU was also about more than creating physical spaces and self-run courses; the process of creating these spaces alsoformed a community of commoners. Here the classroom (or department) is refashioned as the spaces of pedagogy created by the ROU, for example through its discursive ‘concept meetings’ or the six month autonomous space the Space Project. In operating within, against and on the edge of the university (Noterman & Pusey, 2012), the ROU acted as a form of ‘undercommons’ (Harney & Moten, 2013). This undercommons is populated by what have been termed ‘para-academics’ who mimic academic practices but refuse the instrumentalisation of the academy (Wardrop & Withers,2014). This is a form of intellectual production that refuses measure and aspires to be ‘doing’ rather than abstract labour (Holloway, 2010). The majority of the ROU were situated within the university, and operated at a subterranean level – not entirely off theradar, but not entirely on it. There was an imperceptibility. What, or who were the ROU? What was it about? Was it a protest or a seminar? There was a misfitting. This was anattempt to be in-but-not-of the university, of ‘hacking the university’ (Winn, 2014). Over the two years that the ROU existed it contributed much-needed debate within the broader struggles around Higher Education, and began to ask important questions about the relationship between capitalism, universities and the common(s). Importantly these questions arose through prefigurative experiments in producing new forms of edu-commons, inside, outside and on the edge of the institution." (

More information

  • book: Urban Theory: New Critical Perspectives. Mark Jayne (Editor), Kevin Ward (Editor), (2016) Routledge: London