Commons Transition Plan for the City of Ghent

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


( English version)


City of Ghent:

"The Commons Transition Plan describes the role and possibilities for the City of Ghent in reinforcing citizen initiatives.

From March to June 2017 peer-to-peer expert Michel Bauwens conducted a three-month research and participation project in Ghent on the ‘commons city of the future’. The result of that research is this Commons Transition Plan, describing the possibilities and role of the City of Ghent (as a local authority) in reinforcing citizen initiatives. With this, the City wishes to give further shape to a sustainable and ethical economy in Ghent.

Michel Bauwens (58) has already been working for over ten years on the theme of the commons-based economy and society. He is solicited all over the world as a speaker or to give workshops, and is the author of the bestseller ‘Saving the world: With P2P towards a postcapitalist society'. Bauwens led a similar research and transition project in Ecuador. The major French newspaper, Libération, referred to him as the leading theorist on the theme of the economy of cooperation, following the French edition of the book.

The commons is a way to describe shared, material or immaterial property that is stewarded, protected or produced by a community – in an urban context often by citizens’ collectives – and managed according to the rules and standards of that community. It is fundamentally distinct from state bodies – government, city, state – but also from market actors. The commons is independent of, but of course still holds relationships to, the government and the market. Commons as a new form of organisation is exemplified by a variety of initiatives based around production and consumption with the idea of achieving a more sustainable society. This can for example be the set-up of energy cooperatives or shared work spaces for co-working. Examples in Ghent are EnerGent, LikeBirds, Voedselteams, Wijdelen, etc.

All of these initiatives show that ‘urban commons’ is alive and kicking today in the city.

Aim of the research

For the City of Ghent, the central question of this research and participation project was: how can a city respond to this and what are the implications of this for city policy? The goal was to come up with a synthesised Commons Transition Plan that describes the possibilities for optimal public interventions while also offering answers to the question of what Ghent’s many commoners and commons projects expect from the city.

The intention of this assignment is therefore to investigate the possibility of a potentially new political, facilitative and regulatory relationship between the local government of Ghent and its citizens so as to facilitate the further development of the commons.

With this work the researchers have tried to find out what kinds of institutionalisation is fitting to handle the commons well. This means essentially a shift from a top-down approach and old organisational principles such as ‘command and control’, towards a new way of thinking and an approach as a ‘partner city’, in which the city facilitates and supports projects. Of course, sometimes the city must also regulate projects, in the role of a more facilitative government.

Structure of the Commons Transition Plan

In the first part, the report gives a general introduction to the commons which serves to explain why the commons are important in the context of urban development.

In a second part, the researchers look at the global context in which the revival of the commons is taking place, but most of all at the reality of the urban commons in a number of other European cities, which may possibly serve as a benchmark for the city of Ghent.

Part 3 presents the findings in Ghent itself.

Finally, in Part 4, the researchers give their recommendations to the city council.

At the end of this study there are a series of appendices, including an English-language overview of the commons in European cities, written by the Greek urbanist Vasilis Niaros, who was a Timelab resident during the period of our research. The authors of the report, Michel Bauwens and Yurek Onzia, are responsible for parts 1 and 4. Vasilis Niaros wrote the comparative study."

Executive Summary

In English:

The context and structure of the report

This study was commissioned and financed by the City of Ghent, a city in the northern Flanders with nearly 300,000 inhabitants, with the support of its mayor Daniel Termont, the head of the mayor’s staff, the head of the strategy department, and the political coalition of the city which consists of the Flemish Socialist Party SPA, the Flemish Greens (Groen) and the Flemish Liberal Party (Open VLD).

The request was to document the emergence and the growth of the commons in the city, to offer some explanations of why this was occurring, and to determine what kind of public policies should support commons-based initiatives, based on consultation with the active citizens in Ghent.

The authors of the report are Michel Bauwens as investigator and Yurek Onzia as coordinator of the effort.

Timelab, an artistic makerspace under the leadership of Evi Swinnen, and the Greek scholar of the P2P Lab Vasilis Niaros, played important supportive roles in the realization of this project.

The consultation, which took place during the spring of 2017, took the form of:

  • A mapping of 500 or so commons-oriented projects per sector of activity (food, shelter, transportation, etc), through a wiki, which is available at
  • 80+ one to one interviews and conversations with leading commoners and project leaders
  • A written questionnaire that was responded to by over 70 participants
  • A series of 9 workshops in which participants were invited per theme, ‘Food as a Commons’, ‘Energy as a Commons’, ‘Transportation as a Commons’, etc ..
  • A Commons Finance Canvas workshop, based on the methodology developed by Stephen Hinton, which looked into the economic opportunities, difficulties and models used by the commons projects

The report consists of four parts.

The first part provides the context on the emergence of urban commons, which has seen a tenfold increase in the Flanders in the last ten years. It focuses on the challenge it represents for the city and the public authorities, for market players, and for traditional civil society organisations, and how the new contributive logic of the commons challenges (but also enriches) the logic of representation of the European democratic polities, in this specific case, at the level of a city. It also looks at the opportunities inherent in the new models such as more active participation of inhabitants in co-constructing their cities, in solving ecological and climate change challenges, and in creating new forms of meaningful work at the local level.

The second part is an overview of urban commons developments globally, but especially in European cities, and takes a closer look at the experiences in Bologna (with the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons, now adopted by many other Italian cities), Barcelona (the pro-commons policies of the new political coalition of En Comu), Frome, UK (for its civic coalition that replaced the political parties in the running of the city), and Lille, for its experience with a Assembly of the Commons as a voice and expression of the local commons.

The third part is the analysis of the urban commons in Ghent itself, highlighting some of its strengths and weaknesses.

And finally, in the fourth part, based on our analysis in the three first parts, we offer our recommendations to the City, in terms of an institutional adaptation of the city to the new commons-centric demands that emerge through the commons activities. It’s a set of 23 integrated proposals for the creation of public-commons processes for the co-creation in the city. In some way, it represents the shift from urban commons to a more ambitious vision of the ‘city as a commons’.

The context for the Emergence of the Urban Commons

We define the commons as a shared resource, which is co-owned or co-governed by a community of users and stakeholders, under the rules and norms of that community. There is no commons without active co-production (commoning), and without an important measure of self-governance. Thus, it differs from both public and state- or city-owned goods, and from private property managed by its owners. Both a Dutch study by Tine De Moor (Homo Cooperans), and a study for the Flanders by the Oikos think thank have confirmed a steep rise in the number of commons-oriented civic initiatives (commons-oriented means that important aspects of the initiatives have commons’ aspects). This rise is related to a growing awareness amongst a layer of citizens that a social and ecological transition is necessary given the relative state and market failures, but also by the effects of the great economic and systemic crisis of 2008, which has seen an austerity-driven retreat from public authorities in terms of common infrastructures.

These new urban commons however do not exist ‘on their own’ as fully autonomous projects and entities but by necessity interact with both public and market forces, for access to resources and support.

Thus the commons is a challenge for the other institutions as well:

  • It is a challenge for the city, as commons are a claim to both public and private resources, that were governed by the city, or they may be private properties that have not been used for certain periods. The self-governance in the commons, which most often takes a contributory logic, i.e. the contributors and participants manage the projects - not necessarily all the citizens - is also a challenge for representative democracy. Commoners may want support, but may resent control and limitations to their autonomy.
  • It is a challenge for market forces, which may be challenged by commons projects as alternatives to privatized provision, or they may profit from them in ways that are considered to extractive by the commoners, or they actions may ‘enclose’ and destroy the commons, creating conflictual relations..
  • But is is also a challenge to the older civil society organisations, which were based on memberships, a professional cadre, and bureaucratic forms of organisation and management; elements which are often rejected in the commons initiatives

The commons requires a ‘partner’ city, which enables and empowers commons-oriented civic initiatives; require generative market forms which sustain the commons and create livelihoods for the core contributors; and require facilitative types of support from civil society organisations.

An important discovery in our analysis of the 500+ urban commons projects in Ghent, is that their structure strongly resembles that of the commons-driven digital economy. This means that at the heart of urban commons, we find productive communities based on open contributions; that these urban commons and their platforms may generate, and have to generate if they are to be resilient and self-sustaining over time, generative market forms, i.e. entrepreneurial coalitions that have a positive relationship with the commons and the commoners; and that they require, and get, facilitative support from the various agencies and functionaries of the city, and of the Civil Society Organisations, which have adapted to the needs of the new citizen-commoners.

This relationship is shown by the following graph:

This graph shows the five entry points of the commons economy in which the city is actively intervening (bottom), the 3 elements of the commons economy, and the public-commons processes and institutions which could be set up as a meta-structure to frame the cooperation between the city, the commoners and the generative economic entities.

It is also clear that the commons initiatives and their emerging economy, carries potential for the social and economic life of the city.

The three main potentials are in our opinion the following:

  • The commons are an essential part of the ecological transition: shared and mutualized infrastructures have a dramatically lower footprint than systems based on ‘possessive individualism’, but on the condition that ‘it is done in the right’ and systemic way. A good counter-example is how the competition between drivers in the Uber model negates the environmental advantages of ride-hailing. Huge reductions in the material footprint (and carbon footprint) are possible with the commons-centric models.
  • The commons are a means for the re-industrialization of the city following the cosmo-local model which combines global technical cooperation in knowledge commons with smart re-localization of production; an example is how city procurement could be used to re-instore healthy local meals for children in public schools (5 million a year, not counting other anchor institutions which could join); a combination between procurement from the urban/rurban short-circuit farmers in the organic sector, carbon-free transportation (Ghent is flat, which allows for bike-cargo transport), and local cooking, would create hundreds of jobs for the local economy. Socially, this means jobs not just for the technically-savvy but for the desperate blue collar workers who have been hit hard by the ecologically unsustainable neoliberal globalization model
  • Representative democracy is, for a number of interlocking reasons, in deep crisis and facing a crisis of trust. And the world of production is still nearly entirely un-democratic. The commons however are based on the self-governance of the value producing systems and are therefore one of the few schools of true democracy and participation. Inclusive and diverse commons could be at the very least an adjunct to representative democracy, creating a system of Democracy+, augmented with participation , deliberation and multi-stakeholder governance models in cooperation with the commons initiatives.

The analysis of the situation in Ghent

The city of Ghent is a dynamic city of nearly 300k inhabitants including a huge number of young people and students. It’s a city in which the commons already have a distinct presence, with support from an active and engaged city administration.

  • A tradition of center-left coalitions have created a distinct political and administrative culture with many engaged city officials. The city is actively engaged in carbon reduction, traffic reduction, and has neighborhood facilitators, social facilitators, connectors in schools, street workers and other types of staff that is actively engaged in enabling roles at the local level. This includes different kinds of support for commons-initiatives
  • The city has an important policy to support the temporary use by community groups of vacant land and buildings
  • The city counts around 500 commons-oriented initiatives in all sectors of human provisioning, such as food, shelter, mobility, etc. Many of these are active around the necessity of socio-ecological transitions in their respective domains and neighborhoods

These positive aspects should be tempered by the following issues:

  • Both the efforts of the city and the commoner’s initiatives are highly fragmented;
  • There are many regulatory and administrative hurdles to hinder the expansion of commons initiatives, for example in the field of mutualized housing; we received a 7 page memo of such obstacles from housing activists for example;
  • Though there are a number of fablabs/coworking spaces and some craft-related initiatives, there is as yet very few activity around open design linked to real production;
  • Though blessed with a large university, which is active around sustainability issues, there is very little evidence of relations between the university and the commons projects, and some of its spinoffs and players are sometimes distinctly hostile to open source and design projects;
  • Though many of the leading commons activists are facing precarious lifestyles and incomes, they usually have good social and knowledge capital and mostly consist of the longer-living inhabitants. There are many commons project in the post-migration communities, but they are mostly limited to ethnic and religious memberships, and there is as yet relatively little cross-over. They are however successful counter-examples such as the initiatives in the neighborhood Rabot.
  • Old and newer Civil Society Organisations play a significant infrastructural and support role for maintaining urban commons projects, but perhaps still see it mostly as useful for the vulnerable population groups and not as key and highly productive resources
  • Despite the city support, the major potential commons are largely enclosed and vulnerable to private extraction; the current models do not challenge the mainstream consensus but find a way to co-exist with the major imbalances
  • Despite its long history of self-organization with the guilds in the middle ages and a very strong labor movement in the 19th century, the cooperative sector and its support mechanisms are quite weak; there is a weak if not inexistent support infrastructure for a specifically generative and cooperative economy that could work with commons infrastructures

The proposals for the city administration

The general logic of our proposals is to put forward realistic but important institutional innovations that can lead to further progress and expansion of the urban commons in Ghent, so that it can successfully achieve its ecological and social goals. We propose public-social or public-partnership based processes and protocols to streamline cooperation between the city and the commoners in every field of human provisioning.

We are not summarizing all proposals here, merely the underlying logic.

Graphic 7 (“ de voorgestelde transitiestructuur in Gent”) shows the general underlying logic.

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.

Graphic 9 (“model transitieversterkend platform”) describes a cross-sector institutional infrastructure for commons policy-making and support, divided in ‘transition arenas’.

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.

The city has indeed created an initiative, Gent en Garde, which accepts the five aims of civil society organisations active in the food transition (local organic food, fairly produced), which works as follows. The city has initiated a Food Council, which meets regularly and could contribute to food policy proposals; it’s representative of the current forces at play, and has both the strength and weaknesses of representative organisations; but it also counts in its membership, the contributive ‘food working group’ which mobilizes those effectively working at the grassroots level on that transition, and which follows a contributive logic, where every contributor has a voice. In our opinion, this combination of representative AND contributory logic is what can create a super-competent Democracy+ institution that goes beyond the limitations of representation and integrates the contributive logic of the commoners. But how can the commoners exert significant political weight. This requires voice and self-organisation. We therefore propose the creation of an Assembly of the Commoners, for all citizens active in the co-construction of commons, and a Chamber of the Commons, for all those who are creating livelihoods around these commons, in order to create more social power for the commons.

This essential process of participation can be replicated across the transition domains, obtaining city and institutional support for a process leading to Energy as a Commons, Mobility as a Commons, Housing, Food, etc..

We also propose the following: (not exhaustive)

  • The creation of a juridical assistance service consisting of at least one representative of the city and one of the commoners, in order to systematically unblock the potential for commons expansion, by finding solutions for regulatory hurdles
  • The creation of an incubator for a commons-based collaborative economy, which specifically deals with the challenges of generative start-ups
  • The creation of an investment vehicle, the bank of the commons, which could be a city bank based on public-social governance models
  • Augmenting the capacity of temporary land and buildings, towards more permanent solutions to solve the land and housing crisis affecting commoners and citizens
  • Support of platform cooperatives as an alternative to the more extractive forms of the sharing economy
  • Assisting the development of mutualized commons infrastructures (‘protocol cooperativism’), through inter-city cooperation (avoiding the development of 40 Uber alternative in as many cities)
  • Make Ghent ‘the place to be’ for commoners by using ‘Ghent, City of the Commons’ as an open brand, to support the coming of visitors for commons-conferences etc..
  • As pioneered by the NEST project of temporary use of the old library, use more ‘call for commons’ instead of competitive competitions between individual institutions. A call for common rewards the coalition that creates the best complementary solution between multiple partners and open sources its knowledge commons to support the widest possible participation

We also propose

  • A specific project to test the capacity of ‘cosmo-local production’ to create meaningful local jobs (organic food for school lunches) and to test the potential role of anchor institutions and social procurement
  • The organisation of a CommonsFest on 28th october, with a first Assembly of the Commons
  • A pilot project around ‘circular finance’ in which ‘saved negative externalities’ which lead to savings in the city budget, can directly be invested in the commons projects that have achieved such efficiencies (say re-investing the saved cost of water purification to support the acquisition of land commons for organic farmers)
  • The setting up of an experimental production unit based on distributed manufacturing and open design
  • Projects that integrate knowledge institutions such as the university, with the grassroots commons projects


August 2020: Karl-Filip Coenegrachts on the Lessons from the Commons Transition Plan in the City of Ghent

Based on an interview of the former Chief Strategy Officer City of Ghent Karl Filip Coenegrachts, who commissioned the Transition Plan from Michel Bauwens.

Interviewer Monique Potts, in the context of the Draft Proposal for a Commons Transition Plan for the City of Sydney

"Karl Phillip was employed by the City of Ghent from 2001 until 2019. While in his most substantial recent role as Chief Strategy Officer for the cit,y he initiated and led the Ghent Commons Transition Plan in partnership with Michel Bauwens from the Peer 2 Peer Foundation (P2P). The City of Ghent is one of 600 municipalities in Belgium, which has seven (plus) levels of governmental all with the same status or authority.

The City of Ghent has approximately 248,00 residents from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. It has developed a strong reputation for it’s progressive participatory and social engagement initiatives, the most recent of which is the Ghent Commons Transition Plan 2018.

Other progressive initiatives which may be of interest and relevance to Sydney include the following:

● The Participatory Policy Unit which saw each of Ghent’s 25 neighbourhoods resourced with an embedded communications and coordination city staff member, to liaise directly between the city and the local residents. Neighbourhood level plans, ideas and strategy were fed into the city wide strategic plan.

● The Living Streets project which enables residents to nominate 3 months of the year where their street can be blocked off to become a common living area.

● The complementary currency Toreke which successfully built community cohesion and generative economy for Turkish and Moroccan migrant communities.

● Ghent Living Labs which was set up as a partnership with education and business under the climate transition umbrella.

● Ghent Crowdfunding Platform to fund for climate adaptation projects.

Key Insights for Sydney Commons

● City attempts to establish an ‘Assembly of Commons’ was challenging as different commons groups had their own competitive engagement with the city eg. Car sharing groups. What was more successful was to invite an open conversation on how commons groups want to work with the city and allow them to self organise.

● Having Michel Bauwens come in as an independent party to draft the Commons transition plan created space for an honest and open dialogue between the city council, city employees and commons that could not have happened if the city had created the report.

● One of the biggest challenges is changing the mindset of civil servants to see that the city is just one stakeholder or actor in society and needs to act as a partner in this network.

● Through dialogue between civil servants/politicians and the commons stakeholders, the focus shifted from the commons seeking project funding from the city to identifying space as being one of the biggest challenges that the city was able to support the commons with. The city has many sites earmarked for potential development in 2o or 30 years which were able to made available on a temporary basis for commons initiatives based on some simple regulations.

● A ‘pioneer fund’ was set up to give citizen and community led initiatives a small grant (2,500 Euro) to get started and a space to work from.

● Initial work of the commons transition plan involved a scan or mapping of commons initiatives which identified 550 groups or initiatives. These were then grouped into 8 key domains (eg. Food, housing, energy) and meetings were held with representatives from each of these domains which included commons groups, academics and civil servants responsible for these domains. A separate strategy was developed for each of these domains as part of the transition plan.

● It’s crucial to have a legal expert on board in the city legal team that has a solutions focused approach to engaging with commons initiatives and organisations.

● In terms of funding for a group to coordinate and support commons based initiatives, consider private or semi-private (philanthropic funding) as this will be more sustainable longer term. Another option is to partner with a more established civil society group that already has income streams and can support and auspice the setup of the group. Livelihood is the biggest challenge for this work.

● Start with pilot that includes a number of domains (eg. housing. mobility, social inclusion) and consider having one more public/higher profile and a few others that can be developed in a more organic way with less pressure.

● Recommend engaging with Sharing Cities network and Urbact championed by Christian Iaione (see separate interview).

● Look at Australian City Deals initiative as potential support for commons in Sydney this involves all 3 levels of government supporting strategic city based initiatives." ( )

More information

* 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.