Theorizing the Urban Commons

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* Essay: Theorizing the Urban Commons: New Thoughts, Tensions, and Paths Forward (book review essay). By Amanda Huron. Urban Studies, I - 8, 2017



"Because all the books are edited collections, their contributions to theorising the urban commons are necessarily uneven. But there are a number of pieces throughout each volume that open up thinking through the urban commons in important ways. Here, I focus on the extent to which these books address key questions in urban commons scholarship that need attention. The most obvious question is this: what is particularly ‘urban’, theoretically and materially, about the urban commons? Why is it useful to theorise the urban commons specifically? I spend some time on this question, because it is critical to the whole endeavour. Next, I ask how the authors address several key tensions within the urban commons concept. First, I examine the tension between openness and exclusion that can bedevil the theorisation and practice of commons broadly and, I believe, urban commons particularly. I then turn to how the authors address the tension between ‘the public’ and ‘the commons’, and finally the tension between the commons and capitalism. I end by discussing a few key questions I think the authors miss, and that I hope to see taken up in future work on the urban commons."


The public and the commons

Amanda Huron:

"Another tension lies between the idea of the public and the idea of the commons. How is ‘the public’ differentiated from ‘the commons’, and why does it matter? Kratzwald, in Moving Beyond State and Market, makes a two-part argument. First,she argues that the idea of the ‘commons’ predates the idea of ‘the public’. A main function of the modern state, she argues, has been to guarantee the functioning of capitalism, and ‘[f]rom the beginning’, she asserts,‘the state has existed in conflict with the idea of the commons’ (p. 32). But she still thinks it is possible to ‘employ the concept of the commons in defense of urban public space, and thereby to shift the term ‘‘public’’ in an emancipatory direction’ (p. 31). Similarly, Bruun, in Rethinking the City, draws upon Carol Rose’s (1994) distinction between two types of public property to distinguish between the public and the commons. Rose distinguishes between public property own edand managed by a government body, and ‘public property collectively ‘‘owned’’ by society at large with claims that are independent of and superior to government’ (p. 165:page 110 in Rose’s original). For Bruun, the latter represents the commons.

Several other authors also take up the question of the relationship between the public and the com-\mons. Ortiz tackles the question in his piece in Moving Beyond State and Market, in which he examines the case of a poor people’s takeover of a piece of land in Santiago, Chile, arguing that such takeovers represent a case of commoning, and as such challenge Chile’s simple binary of either public or private. In another chapter in the same volume, Ulloa applies a Foucauldian lens to the case of a community in San Jose, Costa Rica, theorising ‘radical commoning’ as the way residents were able to turn public goods and spaces into urban commons. In a related vein, two authors examine the relationship between the urban commons and public urban planning.

Moving Beyond State and Market co-editor Mueller analyses the role that urban commons could play in par-\ticipatory urban planning processes, using a Berlin park as a case study. She posits that urban commoners – a community of people, for instance, working together to create a park – might be better partners in a city’s urban planning process than ‘the public’ more broadly, because the commoners have already come together with clearly articulated visions and needs, unlike the more amorphous ‘public’. And Low, in Rethinking the City, examines the conflict between ‘public interests’ associated with the commons and how those interests are represented by planners and other professionals, using acase study from Frankfurt am Main as an example. But overall, I was left unsatisfied by these authors’ discussion of the tension etween the commons and the public. Right-wing champions of the commons, of which there are plenty, delight in the com-\mons precisely because of its potential for replacing the public and the state."

More information

The books reviewed:

  • Mary Dellenbaugh, Markus Kip, Majken Bieniok et al. (eds), Urban Commons: Moving Beyond State and Market, Birkha¨user Press: Berlin,2015; 244 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-03821-661-2,£22.99/US$42.00 (pbk)
  • Christian Borch and Martin Kornberger (eds), Urban Commons: Rethinking the City , Routledge:London, 2015; 176 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-13-801724-5, £75.00 (hbk)
  • Francesca Ferguson (ed.), Make_Shift City:Renegotiating the Urban Commons, Jovis Verlag:Berlin, 2014; 256 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-86859-223-8, e32.00 (pbk)