Urban commons, a notion for rethinking territorial planning?

Note rapide n° 813

juillet 2019

Institut d’aménagement et d’urbanisme de la région d’Île-de-France (IAU)

The notions of « common », « common good », « urban commons », are increasingly present in the discourse of city and planning actors, without always being clearly defined. What exactly are we talking about and what does this mean for today’s urban planning? Through new practices of local democracy, resource management and use of space, accompanied by new legal provisions, urban communes are becoming an essential project tool for imagining and renewing part of urban production.

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Elinor Ostrom, an American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2009, has helped to bring the concept of commonality to the forefront. This notion, which has a long history, is thus revisited, enriching the understanding of the interplay of actors, without limiting it to the public and private spheres, and opening it up to collective and citizen action. The commons are today part of a general movement to reappropriate space in order to rethink shared and inclusive cities. This Note presents some exemplary initiatives in France and Europe.

History and definitions

Communes existed in the Middle Ages in the countryside, where the organisation of land use took precedence over the question of ownership via grazing rights (the action of grazing livestock on fallow land or in forests) or gleaning rights. Depending on the season and the needs of farmers and herders, the rules for the use of common areas differed. In France, section properties in communes are the legacy of these practices. The jurist Sara Von Huxem thus points out that even within the existing French legal framework, but in disinheritance, the question of simultaneous rights of use on the same property is possible through « sectional property ». They consist of pastures, forests or fields, and of rights of use, for example for hunting or gathering. They may also be a mill, a fountain, a bread oven, or even agricultural equipment. It is article 2411-1 of the General Code of Territorial Authorities that defines sectional property.

These practices then declined over the centuries with the movement of enclosures (the lord owners then exploited these lands without sharing them), before recently resurfacing via several phenomena.

On the one hand, the advent of the web in 1991 brought the issue of information commons to the forefront: free software, open databases, such as Wikipedia or the creative commons, are the best known examples. The Creative Commons (CC) association offers a legal alternative solution to people wishing to free their works from the standard intellectual property rights in force in their country, which are considered too restrictive. It has created several copyright licenses, known as creative commons. Depending on their formula, they give access to works free of rights, or protected by more restrictive rights of use, concerning their distribution, reproduction, modification, etc.

On the other hand, the environmental crises (collapse of biodiversity, depletion of resources, climate change, environmental pollution) will give rise to the growing use of the notion of the common good to preserve the oceans, biodiversity and forests, and to propose global governance.

Finally, the deployment of social and solidarity economy (SSE) enterprises and collaborative and contributory approaches has also brought the notion of common and general interest back to the fore. Indeed, communes respond to the challenge of social innovation proposed in the SSE law of July 2014, notably because they respond « to social needs that are not or poorly met, whether under current market conditions or within the framework of public policies », but also « through an innovative way of organising work ».

Thus, following the work of Elinor Ostrom, commonalities are defined by three essential dimensions:

It is thus possible to challenge an association for the maintenance of peasant agriculture (Amap) as a common, because it aims to preserve an agricultural resource and to share it, around an open community of members who have set up operating rules (aid for harvesting, distribution, etc.). Conversely, a public space does not, in its traditional management, constitute an urban common, insofar as there is no community open to citizens, proposing rules for the management of this space: it belongs to the public domain and is managed by a public authority, be it a commune, a conurbation or the State.

The notion of community thus has several dimensions:

Public strategies to support local authorities: a new stage

For Valérie Peugeot, a prospector at Orange Labs, it is a question of imagining public-community partnerships. According to her, the public actor can act in four directions for the development of communes: be a facilitator (with the FSOs or local currencies for example), a protector (limitation of patents on seeds in the biodiversity law), an institution (recognition of social innovation), and a contributor (open data public). The following three examples illustrate this and also reflect the dynamism of the issue of commons in Italy and Belgium.

The Charter of Municipalities in Bologna (Italy)

Article 118, added in 2001 to the Italian Constitution (constitutional revision of 18 October 2001) was the basis for the development of communes in Italy: « The State, the regions, the metropolitan cities, the provinces and the communes shall encourage the autonomous initiative of citizens, acting individually or as members of an association, for the exercise of any activity of general interest, on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity. « In Bologna, an area of more than one million inhabitants, the city council approved in 2014 a « regulation for the shared administration of urban municipalities », based on the principle of subsidiarity, with the following objectives :

This regulation introduces a change in the model of the relationship between the administration and citizens. It encourages public-community partnerships and has since been adopted by 140 Italian cities. In concrete terms, project leaders can apply on a digital platform, Comunita, to propose an initiative for the management of a community, whether tangible or intangible, public space or building. It is possible to comment on the project during 15 days, before the administration evaluates its general interest character. If it is accepted, and after a collective work to specify it, a collaboration pact (technical-legal document) is then signed between the actors. Since 2014, approximately 500 pacts have been approved out of the 700 proposals submitted, with nearly 10,000 citizens involved. Examples include a third place such as INstabile Portazza, in a former abandoned civic centre (owned by the city); a solidarity shop (RWL); or citizen participation in the restructuring of the Albani covered market. The administration had to change its organisation to work better with citizens, especially around issues of accountability within projects and transparency of the process.

The Labgov: Laboratory for the Governance of the City as a Commons

Labgov is an international platform for research, reflection and evaluation, working on shared forms of governance of the commons, and on the city itself as a commons. It has created the CO-cities programme, which many Italian cities have joined, starting with Bologna, and which is now being extended to other cities around the world. The Labgov has evaluated 280 pacts that have led to the creation of a strong social capital for the city of Bologna, but also revealed some weaknesses: few multi-actor partnerships and fragile economic models. The protocol set up aims to develop horizontal governance adapted to each joint project, which is framed by a contractual tool or a public-private-common partnership. It is based on five principles:

The Commons Transition Plan in Ghent (Belgium)

In 2017, the city of Ghent (300,000 inhabitants) commissioned a transition plan for the communes from the Belgian economist Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation, in collaboration with Yurek Onzia (project coordinator) and Vasilis Niaros (Greek researcher and academic). In this commissioning report, 480 communes were identified, analysed, and the authors drafted 23 proposals for the commune to become a partner city of the communes. Among these proposals :

Urban communities and regional planning

The particularity of urban communes is that they are deployed in environments where resources are very often under pressure: high land and property prices, competition between uses, density of inhabitants and users, etc. The urban communes are also characterised by the fact that they are located in areas where resources are very often under pressure: high land and property prices, competition between uses, density of inhabitants and users, etc. The urban communes are also characterised by the fact that they are located in areas where resources are very often under pressure. They can therefore provide a local response to several contemporary urban issues: facilitating access to land and property, encouraging shared urban production, promoting joint management of resources to be preserved (fertile land, biodiversity areas, open spaces, etc.), proposing ways of making the ecological transition and strengthening social ties through collective action by citizens. The six examples presented on pp. 3-4 are illustrations of this.

The development of new economic structures such as cooperative societies of collective interest (SCIC) or cooperative and participatory societies (Scop) also testifies to the establishment of new forms of governance for the management of certain spaces or resources. If we look more specifically at urban production, the process can therefore potentially be enriched in four stages:

Urban communes are local and citizen initiatives that can thus include a multitude of different actors in open and inventive governance. More than the nature of the resource, it is how it is managed that matters. Urban communities are located in the interstices between public policies and market economic logic, where certain social needs are not or poorly satisfied. Moreover, the communes must not make us forget the importance of the infrastructures that support cities and territories. As Gilles Jeannot, director of research at École des Ponts ParisTech, points out in his article « Les communes et les infrastructures des villes » [Jeannot, 2017]: « While communes are by nature the object of conflicts of use and are therefore always the object of attention, infrastructures, when they are installed and function smoothly, disappear even when they are not buried, such as water, electricity or telephone networks. This invisibility is a problem in ensuring the necessary complementarity between common and heavy infrastructure. »

The challenge in Île-de-France today, like Bologna or Ghent, is to better understand, identify and support these urban and territorial communities, which are fully in line with the ecological transition process, while revitalising local democracy and shared urban production.


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  • Ostrom Elinor, Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

  • Peugeot Valérie (coordination Nicole Alix, Jean-Louis Bancel, Benjamin Coriat, Frédéric Sultan), « Facilitatrice, protectrice, instituante, contributrice : la loi et les communs », dans Vers une République des biens communs, Paris, Les liens qui libèrent, 2018.

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