CA Stories

Who owns the city? We own the city!

Needless to say, the city is a system, which is in a continuous progress or – as David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography would say – in a ‘process of becoming’. The city is a complex and incomplete event, a space and a condition at the same time, and that is why a city today is completely different from what it was centuries ago. This process of becoming should be perceived with caution, because sometimes cities might end up in a tragic event – cities might lose their ‘citiness’. Democracy is at stake here. In order to understand these processes, it is necessary to focus on a couple of particular questions. What is a city and who owns it? What processes in our cities are accelerated by the current economic and political system? And what could be the potential practice that would lead the way towards sustaining cities for everyone, and hence renovating democracy, that is, towards a ‘new democracy’?

In order to visualise the sound claim of a non-urban city in an era of global capital, widespread gentrification, and the dominance of top-down political decision making, it is first important to address the complex and incomplete system that a city is. In his book The City (1925), American urban sociologist Robert E. Park described the city as ‘something more than a congeries of individual men and social conveniences – streets, buildings, electric lights, tramways, and telephones, etc.;  something  more, also,  than  a  mere constellation  of  institutions and administrative devices – courts, hospitals, schools police, and civil functionaries of various sorts. The city is, rather, a state, a body of customs and traditions, and of organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition. The city is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature, and particularly human nature.’ Saskia Sassen – an urban sociologist whose research and writings focus on globalisation and its social, economic and political dimensions – stresses this in her book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. She states that a concrete, densely built city infrastructure is actually not enough to constitute a city. Rather the opposite – it could even constitute the loss of urbanity, i.e. the loss of its citiness. But what does that exactly mean?

Social, political and economic expulsion is a phenomenon described by Sassen that explains this the best. Expulsion is something that varies enormously across social strata, physical conditions, and across the world, but one of the ways to address it is by stressing the fact that cities of today – an era of international capital and global networks – are experiencing an increase in corporate urban buying. It is not a secret that urban land and property are an extremely profitable investment. Hence, by buying it, it is impossible to go wrong. This is not a problem in itself, but often the corporate buying leads to underutilisation or enclosure of the bought infrastructure. When national or foreign corporations buy property – housing complexes and cultural or industrial heritage for example – and leave it abandoned or enclosed, a city undergoes the loss of its citiness. It evaporates when the boiling social and cultural heterogeneity – in the form of communities with no property rights – is wiped out from cities, making them conserved for homogeneity and the owning elite. This is also closely related to the concept of gentrification.

Urban land is a resource. It is one of those things we need to make a city, just like real estate, radio frequencies, sunlight, urban waters (such as canals, lakes, and rivers) and much more. Citizens making the city has an intrinsic democratic quality that is appealing at a time when existing democratic institutionalisation is under pressure and the democratic reach and effectiveness of representation is questioned. The ownership of resources has an important meaning for cities’ inhabitants because it enables them to become active makers, who can develop and improve their neighbourhoods and the city as a whole. This is because ownership rights allow acquiring housing, while at the same time creating opportunities to introduce new initiatives, start activities for the neighbourhood, or undertake projects for energy production, food and water supply. The current system of ownership makes this process problematic. A city is not a pre-political and pre-market place like some non-urban areas are. Citizens don’t have free access to the resources a city has to offer. Almost all resources in the city are already owned and regulated either by the state or private entities. They are already part of a public-private usage scheme and are not open for any alternatives, without state or market complying with the change.

To clarify, the state here should not be perceived as a neutral party that merely represents the interests of diverse communities. Everyday reality shows that the state is subdued to more complex sets of interests, in which political parties, for example, play a decisive role. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples where the state is serving interests that are opposite to those of the community. Let’s not go in depth however whether this is done intentionally or not. More important is the fact that communities and social innovators, who make the city bottom-up, are dependent on allowance and permission by other parties and do not own the resources they need to make the city. The only way to overcome this dependency is to obtain ownership, but this – obviously – is not within reach for all communities. As a matter of fact, only a small portion can be anticipated to gain such force in cities. The rest – the poor and the modest – get expelled.

This is why property rights are crucial in the way essential goods and resources are allocated, not just for people who own property, but for the non-owners too. What is actually hindered by the conventional property regimes, is the fact that property rights tend to expel the non-owners from the property. This is critical if we address the question of urban inequality. Despite the fact that the city is the main democratic space to act, the poor and the modest don’t get to own or organise, and so, in a large part are excluded from the process of city making.

Sassen stresses that cities have always been democratic spaces for everyone to make history, culture, and economy. Yet, with mostly privatized and state-owned land and property, those with less or no ownership lose their power and right to the city. Maybe they are left with modest neighbourhoods in a periphery where they are given a space ‘to do their thing’, but in the end, they get to be the makers without resources – dependent on the approval of owners, running the risk to be stopped and expelled at any given moment.

Unenclosed spaces with an open and unrestricted access not only ‘refresh the soul of the city, but they also empower citizens’, states American political scientist Benjamin Barber in his book If Mayors Ruled the World (2016). The loss of citiness is a strong indication of democratic shrinkage and decline of good governance. Diverse communities are not able to capture the full value of the urban life anymore. They become segregated due to their social and economic status and hence lose the right to live the life they have reason to value. The loss of the right to own a city as a collective resource is the loss of the freedom of a reasonable social co-existence – the loss of democracy.

Having stressed that cities lose their citiness when their inhabitants are deprived of their right to the city, the ’Urban Commons’ phenomenon appears as a progressive way to address inclusive, collective ownership as well as introduce democratic renewal. Urban Commons has been formulated  by,  among  others,  Sheila Foster, professor of Real Estate, Land Use and Property Law at Fordham University New York, and Christian Iaione, professor of Public Law and Government Economic Regulation at Guglielmo Marconi University of Rome. The commons in a city could be tangible as well as intangible goods and resources. That means it could be digital goods, knowledge, and culture, but it also refers to environmental and urban commons, such as squares, parks, waters, buildings, street paths, vacant lots, cultural institutions, and other urban infrastructure private or public units. These places are recognised to serve for social access and existential exchange, which makes them of a truly common good nature. In their joint work City as a Commons, Iaione and Foster stress that the quality of urban life depends on the open and collective access to the city’s common resources. This is why, the whole city should run as a collaborative commons, in other words: as a ‘co-city’.

What is particular about commons, is that it could be seen as an intervention into the logic of expulsions. Where expulsions, as addressed by Sassen, are about private wealth, exclusion, enclosure, and a culture of consumption, the commons is about common wealth, inclusion, and access, as well as openness to property and resources. It is not about consuming, but rather generating goods for human development, flourishing, and wellbeing. So, expulsions and commons are two opposing lenses through which local authorities perceive a city and its resources that many different stakeholders depend on. What is important here is that these lenses determine public policies, which are developed by governmental authorities, for example, on land use, area development, property and other.

Commons stakes out the claim to the city. It intervenes into privatisation and commodification of a city space by stating that city’s resources belong to a broader group of urban inhabitants than just the political and economic elites. This means that ownership of city resources should not be limited to a single entity because the underlying claim is that urban resources are not something that should be locked up by one owner, but rather belong to all city inhabitants and be open for city making by any one.

The commons lens focuses on two things. First, the issue of city resources and how we could categorise a resource that should be neither privatised nor solely owned by the state, rather accessible for those who have no formal property rights but – as every human being – have a right to flourish. This is how not just material assets but also immaterial ones – including relational interest of communities to a particular resource in cities – are protected. Second, the issue of governance regarding a democratic process of inclusive co-management of an urban resource. This means that city spaces and a city itself are the right place for a collaborative production of public life, goods and services. The commons means that city resources – formalised in communal ownership – should not only be accessible to but essentially should be governed by a broad and diverse range of stakeholders to make the city and simultaneously restore democracy from the ground-up. It aims to provide communities with resources – not on a temporary or use basis, but in a permanent manner. The democratic quality of commons depends, for a large part, on a cultural shift in terms of how we think about government. The commons challenge us to develop new governance structures.

This is why Foster and Iaione introduce the co-city with a co-creative governance scheme based on moving away from hierarchical, standardised, and uniform government toward collaborative or polycentric governance which aims to include multiple stakeholders in order to co-make the city. Communal ownership over the resource is a prerequisite for a truly co-creative governance, based on inclusivity and a productive use of expertise and the different roles and interests stakeholders have. It creates a form of accountability for those who are involved in the co-creation process as well as it shores the democratic legitimacy for the community at large, transcending the internal governance structure.

Every city has different urban development and governance paths. Every city differs significantly in terms of its political, legal and economic systems or even urban issues. Even within one city, there is this great variety. The idea of commons in the city is thus to come up with context-based policies and strategies to address both resource and governance issues and by doing so transforming cities into sufficiently responsive, flexible and adaptive spaces which engage and involve different ‘publics’ in owning and governing collective economic and social city assets. A co-city is a new democratic arena – the interface between state and society, conduits for negotiation, information, and exchange – to designate urban space, structure or infrastructure, like community gardens, parks, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, cultural institutions, as experimental Urban Commons in which different actors can collaborate to co- create solutions to meet local needs.

Despite that a co-city framework is meant to adapt to local peculiarities of different contexts, it has three underlying principles. The first one is collective governance. It refers to a pluralism of actors (members of the public, public authorities, businesses, civil society organisations, and knowledge institutions), incorporating sub-local communities, cooperating and collaborating together to create, access, use, and co-manage common resources. With collective action, it aims to identify and reinforce social norms and social capital as well as leverage access to civic and other assets. The second principle is an enabling state, which is based on the transformation of the local administrative culture and norms. This principle stresses the increase of local competencies and capabilities to incentivise and coordinate collective governance to change the ‘architecture’ of the city (administrative, cognitive and professional, technological, financial, etc.). The enabling state should take part in designing new legal and policy tools to facilitate collaboration and cooperation. The third principle is social pooling. It is a peer-to-peer production of goods and services (such as, Do It Yourself and open production, and value produced through open source software, information, data, and culture). Social pooling is based on social mutualism and reciprocity to produce social welfare and well-being through street, block or sidewalk level cooperativism (collectively ownership or management, internal collaborative decision-making). It is preceded by building on the value of local or sub-local ingenuity and entrepreneurship, anchoring the social and economic wealth of the community through public-private-community partnerships.

We could say that Foster and Iaione’s City as a Commons challenges Sassen’s City as a Commodity because one of the underlying objectives of a co-city is securing rather than reducing the right of its inhabitants to co-own and co-manage the city. The commons lens reorients city officials from a hierarchical, standardised, expertise-based governance model to a distributed, adaptive, collaborative one, in which local and sub-local actors share responsibility and collaborate with the city to achieve a range of social and economic ends. This commons-based approach is practiced on the ground having received support from Laboratory for the Governance of the Commons (LabGov), which experiments with a methodology or a Co-city protocol to support local city makers projects and strengthen the relationships between city officials and the local community at large, and thereby redesign democracy in practice. This is a profoundly experimental process, which differs in every city.

So far, LabGov is based in Bologna and New York, where it ensures collective and inclusive governance of community goods, develops and implements legal and institutional infrastructures that facilitate collaboration and cooperation, and promotes the cooperative production of goods and services (social pooling). As an ultimate goal, it aims to establish true commons and bring together community groups and neighbourhood anchor institutions, along with universities, social innovators, local businesses, and non-profit public interest organisations working as catalysers to co-design and implement local cooperative platforms or regulatory schemes, or city-wide networks or collaborative partnerships to create new opportunities to support the needs of all urban inhabitants and differentiated communities to flourish. A LabGov Amsterdam is in the making.

Saskia Sassen, Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione at New Democracy in Pakhuis de Zwijger. Photo credit: Pakhuis de Zwijger
Saskia Sassen, Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione at New Democracy in Pakhuis de Zwijger. Photo credit: Pakhuis de Zwijger

An example of a successful urban commons project is located in Bologna, where the City Council adopted the Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the Administration for the Care and Regulation of Urban Commons. It is a regulation that allows the unorganised public, such as social entrepreneurs and social innovators, to become involved in projects that require ‘municipal assets or cooperation’ and also allows for a ‘collaboration agreement’ for each project that lays out the terms (what kind of support the city will provide citizens or civic groups, which can include supplies, property, or technical expertise). The securing of the city to its people is played out by pacts of collaboration that identify various kinds of opportunities for collaboration of residents, or whomever else, to take over some of the abandoned underutilised properties and enter them into a collaboration for the city in order to regenerate them. One of the core ideas behind the collaboration pacts in Bologna is to facilitate a transparent process, addressing questions who can access city resources and whether there is a mechanism that regulates this process.

With the co-Bologna project, LabGov Bologna has identified new ground for experimentation. Within the project, there are three locations at the edges of the city that share common features, like a high number of low-income families living in public housing complexes, a high number of first or second generation migrants and a high unemployment rate. The co-Bologna project is about the creation of social pools in these modest areas, where people would be enabled to share basic resources and the basic needs that they have in order to reach a common goal. In Piazza dei Colori, one of these neighbourhoods, where the underutilised commercial spaces have been used as sort of laboratories to start a collaborative economy circuit, in which all the actors on the ground would take part. This has proven to be the way to self- develop in support of other actors. These are hence social pools based on the outskirts of the city where local communities are the driving force. A lot of time and energy is needed in order to collectively build the culture of collaboration within the community itself. This is the reason why governance of commons is a continuous process based on experimentation in order to bring back citiness to the cities.

In order to be successful, co-city needs to be fully inclusive. This emphasises the fact that co-city is not just an invitation to the collaboration process, because this means that those who join collaboration are people who already have resources, such as, time, technical know-how, etc. Co- city rather pays special attention to including groups and individuals who are at the margins or the edges of the city in literal terms and stresses the increase of the capacity of people that are normally left out, expelled or dependent on allowance and permission to participate in city making. Only by adopting the commons lens in public policies on land use, area development, property and other, urban inhabitants are enabled to contribute to the new democracy at the city level.

The governance of the commons is a challenging process, nonetheless, it is going viral. The fact that laws and general city dynamics can be changed from the ground up is fascinating and this is why many cities are working along these lines. Securing commons to urban inhabitants is the way to bring the right to the city back to its citizens and intervene into the logic of expulsions. The commons gives us an answer to the question ‘Who owns the city?’ The answer is ‘We own the city’. Commons encourages us to start working on both the fundamental and practical interpretations of this statement. The commons requires us to define the meaning and culmination of: ‘We’ as the community that it concerns; ‘own’ as the governance structure to co-govern with the community; and ‘the city’ as the resource that this community co-governs.


This article was originally written for the publication New Amsterdam #10, forthcoming in December 2016. In the meantime the article has appeared online at Cities in Transition. If you wish to see the discussion between Sassen, Iaione and Foster, click here. For an overview of the New Democracy series, click here.

Joachim Meerkerk is a strategist and programme maker at Pakhuis de Zwijger - the Amsterdam platform for social innovation. with daily meetings on bottom-up initiatives, new government and governance, and urban development. As a philosopher and creative thinker Joachim is interested in democracy, citizenship and the public domain.Ieva Punyte was born and buttered in Lithuania, has received her BA in the Netherlands and is currently writing her Master thesis on 'The Mobility of the Governance of the Commons' at UvA. She is an intern at Pakhuis de Zwijger.