Urban Commoning in East Asia

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Jeffrey Hou:

"In Taipei, a variety of new urban commons have mushroomed in recent years. They rangefrom self-organized placemaking activitiesto community-driven initiatives to activate vacant sites with the support of city resources. These activities include community gardening, urban farming, appropriation of residual spaces for social events, and salons hosted by independent cafés and bookstores. In Hong Kong, instances of urban commoning have emerged against a backdrop of significant social and political shifts since the handoverfrom the United Kingdom to China in 1997.

Some efforts have strong ties to the recent protest movements, including the occupa- tion of Queen’s Pier, the movement againstthe high-speed railway connecting to China,and more recently the Umbrella Movement.Specifically, many of the recent commoning initiatives have been organized by activists who participated in those movements.In Seoul, responses such as Bin-Zib shared housing have emerged in the context of declining income and job opportunities for young people, coupled with high living costs in the city.

With the election of Mayor Park Won-Soon, a longtime human-rights lawyer, the Seoul Metropolitan Government launched an aggressive Sharing City initiative in 2012 to address issues of transportation, park-ing, residential, and environmental issues through sharing policies. In Tokyo, there arealso a variety of commoning initiatives, rang- ing from Curry Caravan, a moving feast of curry rice to catalyze social interactions andactivate public spaces, to more establishedinitiatives, such as the 3331 Arts Chiyoda, a vacant public school transformed into a hub for artists and designers." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)


Jeffrey Hou:

"Conclusion:Designing the Commons?

With the growing number of initiatives and an expanding network of actors, the phe- nomenon of urban commoning in Taipei and Hong Kong has challenged preconceived boundaries and barriers in these societies.

They do so by connecting different popula- tions, networks, resources, knowledges, and skillsets. To various extents, these acts of commoning facilitate the production of newsocial relationships, meanings, and under-standing beyond the confines of social and economic classes, resident statuses, and memberships in particular social groups. In other words, they perform all the good thingsthat are promised in the commons literature. At the same time, however, the cases from Hong Kong and Taipei offer a more complex and nuanced picture of contemporary urban commoning in East Asia.

Rather than the stereotypical image of anar- chist communes or “primitive” resource man- agement regimes, the contemporary acts of commoning in Taipei and Hong Kong are technically, socially, and economically savvy. They represent intersections of self-initiatives and support from governmental entities and private investors. As such, their operation is not as clear-cut as described in the recent literature of commons and commoning in itsoutright rejection of the state and the market. In fact, many of the cases examined here have taken advantage of the marketplace (as in the case of 9floor using Airbnb for short-term leases of its property) and institutionalresources. The more nuanced picture of urban com- moning in Hong Kong and Taipei raises an important question concerning whether those acts of commoning may be compromisedby its nested relationship within state and market mechanisms, or if such alignment isa necessity or an interim step toward grow- ing the commons. As most of the current initiatives are still in their nascent stage, this will require ongoing examination and criti-cal reflections in years to come. It will also require the organizers of these initiatives and their participants to be vigilant about the encroachment of business and state inter- ests and potential dependency on state and even corporate resources that defeat the very purpose of commoning.

While the recent acts of urban commoning inHong Kong and Taipei have only been around for a few years or in some cases months, they offer powerful lessons for rethinking how both spatial and social resources and assetscan be mobilized and how urban divides can be overcome. From co-working and co-liv-ing spaces to rooftop gardens and commu- nity makerspaces, the cases in Hong Kong and Taipei represent a current movement in redefining how urban spaces and social relationships can be reprogrammed and produced. They suggest new ways through which individuals, communities, and even institutions can come together to forge newrelationships, understanding, and empathy across the deepening social and economic divides. From apartment buildings in Hong Kong to street corners in Taipei, the cases demonstrate that any sliver of urban spacecan become a space for organizing, a social and political space. Through their work par- ticularly with marginalized populations, thecases make visible the divides and mobilizethe public to address them.In moving from a focus on shared resources to the production of social relationships, the recent discourse of commons and common-ing have important implications for planningand design in the urban context. Specifically, the renewed notion of commoning reminds us to reflect critically upon the long-stand-ing emphasis on form and space in design theory and practice, and to reconsider the importance of social processes as tools andingredients for rebuilding cities and societ-ies. Commoning, in this sense, represents aform of social design—design that explores and supports social networks and processes,serves and engages diverse groups, and withpotential for overcoming social and economic divides.Architects, landscape architects, and urban planners have long been builders of the public realm. In today’s cities, however, thepublic realm is no longer confined to arche-typal categories. While conventional public spaces may still allow for the meeting and gathering of diverse populations, overcom-ing social and economic divides will require more skillful, innovative, and even subversiveundertakings. By examining the recent casesof urban commons and commoning in Hong Kong and Taipei, this essay highlights the growing capacity and agency of civil societygroups in addressing the wide array of eco- nomic and social divides in contemporarycities. These organizations and initiatives serve as an inspiration for how our professions can progress in the future. They call on us to reconsider our role and rebuild ourcapacity as builders, instigators, and advo-cates of the commons." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)


Fixing Hong Kong

Jeffrey Hou:

"One of the most distinct aspects of urbancommoning initiatives in Hong Kong and Taipei is their connection to the recent large- scale social and political movements. Fixing Hong Kong, for example, is an outgrowth of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, in which thousands of Hong Kong citizens occupied streets and thoroughfares in key locationsthrough the city for over two and a half months to demand universal suffrage. The Fixing Hong Kong group consists of skilledartisans who helped build the “Study Area” on the streets of the Admiralty district during the occupation. The study area enabled many students to join the occupation while pre- paring for their exams. After the occupation, Fixing Hong Kong decided to continue their newfound political activism by offering repair service for people in need, under the slogan of “fixing Hong Kong begins with fixing com- munities.” The political advocacy through home repair approach came from a realiza- tion that the pro-democracy activists needed better ways to engage the public, who were often indifferent to political discussion. Whiledoing repairs, the activists would engage the residents in conversation about politics. As one of the founders of Fixing Hong Kong,said, “the residents would only open their doors for repairs… But repairing is just thefirst step; our goal is politicize the people.” (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

Rooftop Republic, Hong Kong

Jeffrey Hou:

"Rooftop Republic, an urban gardening service start-up with a mission to promote sharing and community building. More than just providing technical services, Rooftop Republic recruits companies and organizations to share their privately-owned rooftops with the community for gardening and other activities. They served about twen- ty locations throughout Hong Kong at the time of the interview, including rooftops of apartment buildings, company headquar-ters, schools, senior centers, and other public buildings." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

Oh My Kids, Hong Kong

Jeffrey Hou:

"Oh My Kids isa service organization for parents with youngchildren. Its mission is to promote alternative parenting. The organization runs an online platform that includes blogs for parents to share tips on parenting and education. It also serves as a content curator that connectsprogram or service providers with parentswho are looking for alternative play/learn-ing activities for kids. Some of the recent programs included a trip to an organic farm joined by 120 households and an arts work- shop that was so popular that the organizers had to raise its initial capacity of thirty to 150 registered parents. In addition to serving as an online resource platform, Oh My Kids facilitates the creation of an alternative socialnetwork that enables parents to self-organizecollective activities." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

MakerBay, Hong Kong

Jeffrey Hou:

"Makerspaces, or shared fabrication facili- ties, have become an emerging phenomenon in East Asia that also embodies aspects of commoning. In Hong Kong, the prime exam- ple is MakerBay, one of the very first mak-erspaces in the city that has opened in June 2015. A brainchild of Cesar Harada, inventor and TED Senior Fellow, MakerBay occu- pies a floor of a large concrete warehouse building located in the industrial water-front area of Yau Tong district. More than

just a fabrication lab, MakerBay also func-

tions as a co-working space that provides members with access to tools, equipment,and technical support. In addition, it hosts social nights, talks, Hackathons, and pro- grams for kids. Besides regular members, the place is bustling with students on week- ends, especially product design students who do not have access to equipment and toolsat their schools. According to Fiona Ching, MakerBay’s general manager, their long- term goal is to serve also as a resource to the local community (almost entirely public hous- ing estates) and schools through educational programming. In other words, its mission is as much about building community as it is about creating cool projects." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

Do You a Flavor, Taipeh, Taiwan

Jeffrey Hou:

"In Taipei, as mentioned above, Do You a Flavor was formed by a group of student activists who met during the Sunflower Movement. During the occupation at the National Legislature, they were involvedwith managing the food supplies donat-ed to the movement by the public. Withmore supplies than they needed, includ- ing perishable food, they decided to share the food with the homeless. As youngand privileged college students, they had no previous experience interacting with thecity’s homeless population, which has been largely invisible and concentrated in a fewenclaves in the city. In coming into con- tact with homeless individuals, the students learned about the economic hardship and the social isolation experienced by many of thehomeless, an issue that was not addressed by social service agencies and other orga-nizations. In researching the lives of many homeless people who made their living by selling items on the streets, the students alsobecame aware of the role of streets and pub- lic space in the livelihood of marginalized urban populations. Do You a Flavor’s first project was to cre- ate a digital map (http://agoama.tw) show- ing locations of recyclers who combed the streets of Taipei for cans, bottles, card-board boxes, etc. Through the interactive map, they encourage visitors to the website to give recyclable items to the recyclers to help them make a living. The website also allows anyone to report locations of recy- clers and the schedules of their collections to add to the database. The mapping project brought attention to Do You a Flavor. Soon a fan base was established on Facebook.Their next project, Stone Soup, broughtmore volunteers to donate food and cook for the homeless about once per month. The homeless individuals not only received food at given locations, they also had a chance to interact with the volunteers. To move beyond charity, the Do You a Flavor organizers have been developing a project to design new products for struggling street vendors. The redesigned products include small packets ofdried fruits and organic tea that are produced by small-scale, organic farmers. Their goal was to attract more customers who would be interested in buying these products, which would in turn help both the vendors and smallproducers. As such, the products would sup- port alternative economic networks againstthe dominance of large distributors." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

Hun Communes, Taipeh, Taiwan

"Hun Communes is one of many café-styleco-working spaces now existing in Taipei. What made Hun Communes different from the others, however, was its status as the very first co-working space in the city. Justin Yu, a twenty-something entrepreneur and owner of Hun Communes was influenced by similar initiatives that he saw in Japan and Europe, which led him and his colleagues to the venture at a time when no one really understood what a co-working space was. As such, after Hun Communes was launched, Yu was commissioned by the city govern- ment to produce a handbook on co-working spaces to help other entrepreneurs developsimilar projects. Tucked in a quiet residen- tial alley, this trendy, café-like co-work-ing space soon became a site of frequentpilgrimage by aspiring entrepreneurs andstart-ups. More than simply a co-working venue, Hun Communes has been the site of ongoing social and business experiments.

Rather than following a conventional business model, half of its staff are actually vol- unteers who have other paying jobs. The arrangement, with volunteers working there because they enjoy being part of the commu- nity, has significantly reduced the operatingcost and allowed Hun Communes to break even in only nine months since it opened.With such arrangement, Hun Communesfunctions more as a collective than a typi- cal, profit-seeking business venture. Hun Communes’ ongoing experiment extends beyond the co-working space itself. In 2014,Yu and his colleagues applied for a city grant to convert a nearby, government-owned vacant lot into a temporary community openspace in a residential neighborhood. Named“Umbrella Park,” the project was envisioned to provide “refuge, togetherness, and link- ages” in the community. To build outdoorfurniture for the park, they partnered with anonprofit organization, DreamCityBuilding,that trains homeless individuals to become carpenters. In the process of creating the space, Hun Communes invited locals to par- ticipate in an art installation featuring pho- tographs of residents. Participants included both old-timers and student renters (theneighborhood is located next to a major university), who began having conversationwith each other—something that had neverhappened before in the community." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

9th Floor Living Appartments, Taipeh, Taiwan

Jeffrey Hou:

"With an abundance of new co-working spa- ces in Taipei already, Shiy-Rung Pan, the cofounder of 9floor Co-Living Apartments, set out to create something different—a co-living space for those looking for afford- able and alternative living arrangement in Taipei, one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world. Pan, still a graduate student at a local university at the time of my interview with him, got the idea from sharing his small rented apartment with friends,visiting international students, and activists who came to join protests in Taipei during the Sunflower Movement. At one point, more than twenty people were staying togetherat his place. To improve their deteriorat- ing living condition, he and his roommates started to look for a larger apartment in the city. To subsidize the higher rent for the larg- er space, they decided to keep one of the rooms in sparkling condition and rent it outthrough Airbnb. They also host other short- term visitors, including visiting scholars from overseas." (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)

White Hut makerspace, Taipeh, Taiwan

Jeffrey Hou:

"Distinct from the industrial setting of Maker- Bay in Hong Kong, makerspaces in Taipei can be found in residential neighborhoods.Surrounded by multistory apartment build-ings, the White Hut was once a vacant two- story shed sitting idly on a street corner. It now serves as one of the most active andunusual neighborhood spaces in the city. Each Saturday morning, the first-floor façade opens to allow residents and visitors (somefrom far away) to use its growing collection of tools to fix household appliances, furni- ture, and so on. A group of volunteers are onstaff to offer assistance. Rather than offering free repairs, however, the volunteers prefer to teach the residents and visitors how toperform the repairs themselves. The mainmission of the White Hut is therefore to reduce waste and encourage an alternative, environmentally responsible lifestyle. On a typical day, the volunteers would include Mr. Wen, a retired city engineer, Ken, an elec- trical engineer, and Mr. Yu, a physicist and creative entrepeneuer, who is also one of the White Hut’s main organizers. Some residents also volunteer on a regular basis. It is diffi-cult, however, to know who will show up on any given day, as there is not an assigned schedule. “People just showed up,” said Mr. Yu with a smile.

Similar to the way volunteers just showup, the White Hut itself also came about somewhat serendipitously. The proj-ect began with the temporary storage of heavy tools after a community event, which sparked the idea for creating a tool library in the community. First intend- ed for tool sharing, the White Hut soon became a hub for a variety of commu- nity activities. Besides the repair hours on Saturdays, it holds workshops (such as soap making) and events during the week to serve a variety of residents andvisitors. More recently, it began holding woodworking hours on Sundays with power tools made available to residentsand visitors.With the success of its many programs, the volunteers at the often overcrowded White Hut have begun to branch out.For example, they once partnered with a homeless advocacy organization to build storage cabinets for the homeless. More recently they began to help other communities or organizations set up similar kind of makerspace. One such project is the Timber Hut, located in a working-class neighborhood known for its strong artisan community. The staff of the WhiteHut have assisted in multiple events joined by local residents and visitors, turning the space into another communitymakerspace and an active neighborhood hub. In the cases of MakerBay and the White Hut," (https://www.academia.edu/34360760/Urban_Commoning_Against_City_Divided_Field_Notes_from_Hong_Kong_and_Taipei?email_work_card=view-paper)