City as a Commons

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Christian Iaione and Sheila Foster:

"To say that the city is a commons is to suggest that the city is a shared resource—open to and shared with many types of people. In this sense, the city shares some of the classic problems of a common pool resource—the difficulty of excluding people and the need to design effective rules, norms and institutions for resource stewardship and governance. It is tempting, therefore, to impose Ostrom’s design principles onto the city and to apply them to the management of many kinds of public and shared resources in the city. For many reasons, however, Ostrom’s ideas cannot be used in the city the way they were in the nature. Ostrom’s framework needs to be adapted to the reality of urban environments, which are already congested, heavily regulated and socially and economically complex. Without such adaptation, Ostrom’s design principles will be lost in translation." (



"Sheila Foster outlined four major tenets of the city as commons in conference’s closing session:

  • The city is an open resource where all people can share public space and interact.
  • The city exists for widespread collaboration and cooperation.
  • The city is generative, producing for human nourishment and human need.
  • The city is a partner in creating conditions where commons can flourish."


2. Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione:

"Cities and many kinds of urban commons are different from natural resources and more traditional commons in important ways. First, cities are typically not exhaustible nor nonrenewable, although they can become quite fragile over time due to internal and external threats. Much of the city consists of urban infrastructure—open squares, parks, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, roads—which can be purposed and repurposed for different uses and users. These resources share very little with the forests, underwater basins and irrigation systems that were the subject of Elinor Ostrom’s study of common pool resources.

Second, cities are what we might call “constructed” commons, the result of emergent social processes and institutional design. The process of constructing a commons—what some refer to as “commoning”—involves a collaborative process of bringing together a wide spectrum of actors that work together to co-design and co-produce shared, common goods and services at different scales. They can be created at the scale of the city, the district, the neighborhood, or the block level.

Third, cities do not exist in a pre-political space. Rather, cities are heavily regulated environments and thus any attempt to bring the commons to the city must confront the law and politics of the city. Creating urban common resources most often requires changing or tweaking (or even hacking, in a sense) the regulation of public and private property and working through the administrative branches of local government to enable and/or protect collaborative forms of resource management. Legal and property experimentation is thus a core feature of constructing different kinds of urban commons.

Fourth, cities are incredibly complex and socially diverse systems which bring together not only many different types of resources but also many types of people. Because of this diversity and the presence of often thick local (and sublocal) politics, social and economic tensions and conflicts occur at a much higher rate and pace than many natural environments. The economic and political complexity of cities also means that governance of urban commons cannot be just about communities governing themselves. Rather, collective governance of urban commons almost always involves some forms of nested governance, and in most cases cooperation with other urban actors." (

Five Basic Design Principles for the Urban Commons

Christian Iaione and Sheila Foster:

"We have distilled five key design principles for the urban commons:

  • Principle 1: Collective governance refers to the presence of a multi-stakeholder governance scheme whereby the community emerges as an actor and partners up with at least three different urban actors
  • Principle 2: Enabling State expresses the role of the State in facilitating the creation of urban commons and supporting collective action arrangements for the management and sustainability of the urban commons.
  • Principle 3: Social and Economic Pooling refers to the presence of different forms of resource pooling and cooperation between five possible actors in the urban environment
  • Principle 4: Experimentalism is the presence of an adaptive and iterative approach to designing the legal processes and institutions that govern urban commons.
  • Principle 5: Tech Justice highlights access to technology, the presence of digital infrastructure, and open data protocols as an enabling driver of collaboration and the creation of urban commons."



  • City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Good and City Governance, IASC conference held last November, 2015 in Bologna, Italy

See the review by Jay Walljasper:


Essay 1

* Article: The City as a Commons. By Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione. Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2016


"As rapid urbanization intensifies around the world, so do contestations over how city space is utilized and for whose benefit urban revitalization is undertaken. The most prominent sites of this contestation are efforts by city residents to claim important urban goods — open squares, parks, abandoned or underutilized buildings, vacant lots, cultural institutions, streets and other urban infrastructure — as collective, or shared, resources of urban communities. The assertion of a common stake or interest in resources shared with others is a way of resisting the privatization and/or commodification of these resources. We situate these claims within an emerging “urban commons” framework embraced by progressive reformers and scholars across multiple disciplines. The urban commons framework has the potential to provide a discourse, and set of tools, for the development of revitalized and inclusive cities. Yet, scholars have failed to fully develop the concept of the “urban commons,” limiting its utility to policymakers.

In this article, we offer a pluralistic account of the urban commons, including the idea of the city itself as a commons. We find that, as a descriptive matter, the characteristics of some shared urban resources mimic open-access, depletable resources that require a governance or management regime to protect them in a congested and rivalrous urban environment. For other kinds of resources in dispute, the language and framework of the commons operates as a normative claim to open up access of an otherwise closed or limited access good. This latter claim resonates with the social obligation norm in property law identified by progressive property scholars and reflected in some doctrines which recognize that private ownership rights must sometimes yield to the common good or community interest.

Ultimately, however, the urban commons framework is more than a legal tool to make proprietary claims on particular urban goods and resources. Rather, we argue that the utility of the commons framework is to raise the question of how best to manage, or govern, shared or common resources. The literature on the commons suggests alternatives beyond privatization of common resources or monopolistic public regulatory control over them. We propose that the collaborative and polycentric governance strategies already being employed to manage some natural and urban common resources can be scaled up to the city level to guide decisions about how city space and common goods are used, who has access to them, and how they are shared among a diverse population. We offer two evolving models of urban commons governance in cities around the world as examples of these strategies when scaled up to the city level: the sharing city and the co-city." (

Essay 2

* Article: City as a Commons. Christian Iaione.


Paper presented at the Second Thematic Conference of the IASC on “Design and Dynamics of Institutions for Collective Action: A Tribute to Prof. Elinor Ostrom”, 29 November - 1 December 2012, available at the Digital Library of the Commons

"Where does a person go if she lives in a city, she is not lucky enough to have got a garden and she needs going into a natural environment and taking advantage of all services that a green space can provide as running, reading a book on the lawn and outdoors, breathing on average cleanest air? How can that person enhance her own thirst for social relations and meet new and different people rich in cultures and experiences she has not got? Where can she cultivate her own sense of belonging to a community, increase her identity with her own abilities and passions and take part in her traditions? What are the infrastructure and services that increase the quality of urban life and make people lives' worth to be lived and free to move around? What are the facilities and services that let people share or cultivate lifestyles more consistent with their own individual sensibility and with whoever lives in the same space? From a real estate point of view, what determines the economic or simply aesthetic value of a community? All these questions have a single identical answer: it is the urban commons, and that is urban spaces and services of common interest."


* Book: Common Space. THE CITY AS COMMONS. STAVROS STAVRIDES. Zed Books, 2016


"How often do we consider the availability of shared, public space in our daily lives? Governmental efforts in place—such anti-homeless spikes, slanted bus benches, and timed sprinklers—are all designed to discourage use of already severely limited public areas. How we interact with space in a modern context, particularly in urban settings, can feel increasingly governed and blocked off from common everyday encounters.

With Common Space, activist and architect Stavros Stavrides calls for a reconceiving of public and private space in the modern age. Stavrides appeals for a new understanding of common space not only as something that can be governed and open to all, but as an essential aspect of our world that expresses, encourages, and exemplifies new forms of social relations and shared experiences. He shows how these spaces are created, through a fascinating global examination of social housing, self-built urban settlements, street peddlers, and public art and graffiti. The first book to explicitly tackle the notion of the city as commons, Common Space, offers an insightful study into the links between space and social relations, revealing the hidden emancipatory potential within our urban worlds." (