European Policy Brief on the Generative Commons

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= policy brief on Generative European Commons

* Report: European Policy Brief: Generative European Commons Living Lab – gE.CO Living Lab.



"gE.CO Living Lab is a project which aims at mapping, connecting and studying, at the European level, experiences of formal groups or informal communities of citizens who manage hubs, incubators, co-creation spaces, social centers created in regenerated urban voids and providing welfare services. We call such experiences “generative commons”. So far, the project has mapped more than 200 experiences of communities and of local public policies implemented for promoting generative commons. A pilot group of 56 cases (spread in 15 countries and 43 cities) is undergoing a survey, the results of which will be very helpful in better understanding the phenomenon at a larger scale. Such results will be relied on for issuing further policy briefs.

The project, however, is already at a stage which enables us to shed a light on a first main policy implication. Namely, the rise of cooperation as an institutional mean for citizens to implement welfare solutions from the bottom-up and to promote urban regeneration and flourishing.

Our findings suggest that generative commons have a significant social impact and that they are largely widespread in Europe. However, it is noteworthy that such a phenomenon is very little considered at the European policy level. Our suggestion is thus for generative commons to be included in the “Urban Agenda for the EU” and in policy tools alike." (


"The brief begins by stating that the project is already at a stage which enables us to shed a light on a first main policy implication. Namely, the rise of cooperation as an institutional mean for citizens to implement welfare solutions from the bottom-up and to promote urban regeneration and flourishing. It continues: “Our findings suggest that generative commons have a significant social impact and that they are largely widespread in Europe. However, it is noteworthy that such a phenomenon is very little considered at the European policy level. Our suggestion is thus for generative commons to be included in the “Urban Agenda for the EU” and in policy tools alike.”

The brief then goes on to explain, in detail, the three main areas the gE.CO project has shed a light on and contributed towards:

“gE.CO living lab has so far allowed to shed a light on three main elements.

  • First, the fact that, in European urban areas, many individual and collective needs, the fulfillment of which has traditionally been conceived as an exclusive prerogative of the public, are, to the contrary, satisfied through experiences of bottom up self-organization of citizens and local communities.
  • Second, that such experiences, far from being marginal or negligible, are extremely relevant with respect to both, their diffusion and the social impact they produce. Indeed, our findings suggest that urban commons represent the third great axes of urban welfare and regeneration, together with (and peer to) the (better known) solutions coming from public bodies and private actors such as for-profit and non-profit organizations engaged in urban development and social innovation.
  • Third, the activities carried out in our project clearly show that urban commons have the characteristic of putting together the satisfaction of one or more specific needs (or rights) with the renovation and regeneration of urban voids, buildings or even entire areas.”"


Characteristics (Self-Governance)

(see: Self-Governance Characteristics of Generative Urban Commons in Europe)

GeCo Living Labs:


- Self-organization by one or more groups of citizens, resulting in formal or informal structures (e.g. Hotel Pasteur is now organized in an association, but at the beginning it was an informal occupation; the community land trust of Brussels is legally structured in a foundation and an association etc.).

Participation in Decision-making

- A certain degree of participation and democracy within the decision-making processes of the organization (eg: the general assembly of Hotel Pasteur is open to all and the occupants follow specific democratic rules for taking decisions; the model of governance of the community land trust is a well-known best practice of democracy and participation, resting on an open assembly and on a board of directors which composition allows the participation of all the stakeholders of the trust).

Institutional Innovation

- A certain degree of institutional innovation and creation of new institutional structures. With this respect, an example could be, again, the one of the community land trust. Through a very innovative mechanism of dissociation between the property of the land and the one of the improvements insisting on it, the CLT is in fact capable of distributing (home-buyer after home-buyer) the plusvalue acquired over time by the estate, ensuring, by this, perpetual affordable housing. Another example is to be found in the French experience of Plateau Urbain. Plateau Urbain is a French organization which helps to revitalize urban voids undergoing processes of redevelopment. Since such processes may last many years, Plateau Urbain cooperates with the owners of the buildings (often public entities) and with local social entrepreneurs, in order to create temporary uses of such spaces for the time needed for their renovation. This way, such buildings do not remain abandoned for a long time, and are made available for satisfying temporary needs of local social enterprises. Something similar is done in Brussels by a very active network: Communa.

Needs Orientation

- The community, organized through participatory processes, enacts activities aimed at satisfying individual and collective needs (going back to our examples: right to housing and inclusive urban governance for the CLT; access to culture and art, free spaces of working for young artists with respect to Hotel Pasteur; inclusion of migrants and gender equality for Melissa etc.).

Regenerative Orientation

- These activities result in the regeneration of both specific buildings and urban voids, often abandoned and unused (think of Hotel Pasteur, but also to the temporary uses implemented by Plateau Urbain and Communa) or even of entire urban areas (many evidence exist on the role these experiences have on the area where they are located, increasing the sense of community, enhancing the quality of life of the neighborhood, promoting inclusion, avoiding gentrification etc).


Policy Conclusions

Public-Commons Cooperation for Generative Urban Commons in Europe

GeCo Living Labs:

"For quite a long time, public authorities have been reluctant in promoting and considering these experiences. In some cases (especially in those situations where generative commons took the form of illegal occupations), local authorities strongly contrasted and opposed them. However, our findings suggest that, especially in the last ten/fifteen years, this attitude has changed considerably and that public authorities are more and more willing to promote, protect and foster generative commons.

This very significant shift can be explained by the following factors:

- Public authorities are starting to realize that generative commons can often promote urban regeneration and welfare in a very effective way, and at a cost often lower than the one needed by traditional tools of public or public/private intervention. An example, here, is again the one of the community land trust: it is proved that, due to its sophisticated mechanism, the same amount, if invested in a CLT , helps serving up to 60% more beneficiaries than in traditional mechanisms of social housing. Another interesting example, under this perspective, is the one of the ex Asilo Filangieri. The Asilo Filangieri is an historical public building located in the center of the southern Italian city of Naples. It remained empty for quite a long time until, in 2012, a group of citizens decided to occupy it to start a path of participatory governance of the space. Within the space many activities and projects were organized, things which fostered the aggregation of many people around the stewardship of the building. The assembly which undertook the governance of the building (which was – and still is – open to all) built up a democratic process to come up with a “charter” of rules and principles for the management and protection of the estate. On its side, the public owner (the municipality of Naples) realized that the practice carried out in the “Asilo Filangieri” had a positive social impact greater than the municipality could have created itself resorting to traditional public tools and resources. For this reason, the municipality decided to legitimize the process by incorporating the “charter” (“declaration”) written by the community into an administrative act (a deliberation of the city council), this way giving effects to its provisions and legitimizing the possession and the stewardship directly carried out by citizens.

- The example of Asilo Filangieri introduces another important point. Namely that, most of the times (although not always) generative commons lay in public buildings which could not be differently regenerated due to the lack of resources of public administrations. This phenomenon is very widespread, to the point that certain cities, precisely because of that, have decided to use generative commons as a general strategy for the management and regeneration of public spaces, making them a guideline of local public policies. This is the case, for example, of the city of Grenoble, in France, where a permanent assembly of the commons, involving citizens and local organizations, was directly promoted by the city council.

- Both the aforementioned factors became extremely relevant after the economic crisis of 2008 and also during the current Covid-19 emergency. Now, many generative commons are investing their resources in order to find cooperative-based solutions to the main issues the current crisis has posed (shelter, food, care of kids due to the school lockdown etc.). We have deepened this latter aspect here:

- In many cases, generative commons became extremely relevant for the life of the neighborhood or the city, aggregating hundreds of people of very different age, class, ethical background etc. in different activities. In other words, generative commons can be fundamental for social cohesion if entire urban areas and, because of that, are often supported by a widespread political support by citizens.”



The steps undertaken by public administrations around Europe to promote and protect urban commons took very different forms. Such forms and the main issues connected to them are extremely relevant and will be the subject-matter of an autonomous policy-brief. For the purposes of this brief, some elements need, however, to be highlighted:

- Almost all the public policies aimed at promoting and protecting generative commons are taken at the very local level: most of the time at the municipal level, sometimes at the regional level.

- They can take the form of a general policy applicable to more (or possibly all) generative commons in the territory or of a specific agreement between local public authorities and one specific experience. With respect to the first line of policy, two interesting examples can be found in Portugal, Italy and Spain.

In 2010, the City Council of Lisbon, aware of the urban inequalities in the city, identified seventy-seven Priority Intervention Neighborhoods and Zones (BIP/ZIP, original acronym in Portuguese). The program is a model of participatory governance that consists of the development of actions implemented by the civil society itself in the BIPs/ZIPs, with the financial and technical support of the City Council. Through this program, the City Council is trying to reinforce the socio-territorial cohesion of the municipality by mobilising citizens’ energy in the search for solutions that can continue into the future. The interventions can be related to the improvement of the appearance of the neighborhood, the creation of services and activities for the community and visitors, the restoration, re-zoning and occupancy of public space, the promotion of the citizenry, the prevention of risk-related behavior, etc. To date there have been five editions of the program.

General local policies aimed at fostering and promoting the commons are very widespread also in Italy, where they often take the form of “municipal regulations on urban commons”. Such regulations, which have now been adopted by more than 200 Italian cities, provide for a framework which allows formal and informal groups of citizens who are willing to undertake the direct, participatory and open management of a public space to sign a specific agreement with the municipality. With such an agreement, the municipality recognizes the role of the community in the regeneration and stewardship of the good, and frames the main legal issues arising thereof. These regulations have proved very effective in fostering the bottom-up urban regeneration of public spaces such as public empty buildings, parks, urban gardens etc., and many very innovative experiences and best practices of urban governance which can be found in Italy stemmed from agreements signed in the framework of local regulations on the commons.

In this line, the City of Barcelona passed a municipal ordinance setting up and protecting the “communitarian management framework” called “Patrimoni Ciutadà”. According to the Spanish and the Catalan legal system, “communitarian management” is a quite innovative formula enabling citizens and neighbors to manage, control, arrange, run, and decide which kind of activities and which kind of management they want for their “citizen heritage”, mostly referring to old urban voids and important historical buildings. Although this might constitute a “de facto” social practice taking place in various municipalities from long time ago, this is the very first time this “customary” practice has been translated into formal legal norms.

- The common ground of these public policies is to set forth a new way of conceiving the relationship between public administrations and communities. Indeed, they implement a relationship which is not vertical (or top-down), but rather authentically horizontal and inspired by the principle of subsidiarity.

Put in other words, these policies enact a legal regime which is based on the peer collaboration of communities and public bodies in the management and stewardship of the public space. We call this kind of agreements public-civic partnerships. This phenomenon is extremely relevant, since it overturns the traditional underpinnings of administrative and public action, which sees the only possible alliance with the private sector in terms of “public-private partnership”, where the private partner is usually a market stakeholder set up in the form of an incorporated actor. Public-civic partnerships arising from the co-management of urban commons show how the public can find an ally in another form of non-public actor: local communities and groups (even informal groups) of citizens. Precisely because of this innovative strand, the concept of private-civic partnership has started to be debated both in legal scholarship and administrative practice. However, publications on the matter are not as many as could be expected. This is mostly due to a lack of a reasonably comprehensive database of the main experiences enacting this innovative way of urban governance, which being very local is, of course, likewise very scattered.

This is one of the gaps the database set forth by the gE.CO project aims at filling. In general terms, our findings suggest that:

- The support given by public authorities to generative commons is fundamental for their flourishing;

- Such a support needs to go in the direction of the empowerment of local communities, and this, especially, to avoid to turn this bottom up experiences into drive of gentrification;

- With this respect, laws or local regulations embodying these needs, when existing, can be very helpful and effective.”


European Urban Agenda

GeCo Living Lab:

“Great benefits could derive from crossing the UA with Generative commons:

- The European Urban Agenda has proved to be very effective in fostering best practices at the local level and thus, it could be very important in supporting local administrations in the promotion and protection of generative commons;

- UA reflects a very local-based picture, being updated with regards of urban transformations, thing which is consistent with the phenomenon of generative commons;

- UA includes not only public administrations’ efforts, but represents also citizens’ participation and, this way, it translates the idea of the city as a living body, where citizens can actively transform the urban space, idea which is at the cornerstone of generative commons;

- Introducing generative commons in the UA could open a debate around the public-civic partnership as a legal tool to be formalized as something different from the public-private partnership. It has also to be highlighted that:

- The Urban Agenda mechanism of functioning is grounded on three pillars of policy making and implementation which appear to be particularly useful in the promotion of urban commons, namely: i) better regulation; ii) better funding; iii) better knowledge.

- Many experiences of generative commons, as we have seen from the examples developed in this brief, carry out activities in fields covered by the EU agenda (inclusion of migrants and refugees, housing, urban poverty, circular economy, jobs and skills in the local economy, sustainable use of land, etc).

Since generative commons are a crossing phenomenon, it has to be highlighted that they can often be integrated into existing tools without the need to implement new lines of policies. For example, regarding the Urban Agenda for the EU, generative commons could be easily integrated into many of the partnerships already in place, such as Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees, Housing or Urban Poverty. To conclude, in the light of all the elements stated in this brief, we strongly recommend including generative commons in the existing line of policies on urban areas, such as Urban Agenda for the EU and policy-tools alike.” (

The Leipzig Charter for Public-Commons Cooperation in Europe

GeCo Living Lab:

“The approach taken by the new Charter:

- Stresses the idea of the “co-creation” of the city between citizens (local communities) and institutions;

- Highlights the strict connection between this idea of co-creation of the city and the production of welfare services;

- Upholds that this phenomenon is able to promote more inclusive and sustainable cities and highlights its important role with respect to many urban issues such as poverty, pollution, urban marginalization, housing etc.

- Recognizes how all this calls for an integrated methodology of public policy, which sees its cornerstone into local public bodies.”



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