The City Taking the Commons to Heart

Image of Ghent (Belgium)

Where the currents meet
It is a striking fact that whether it is about stimulating the commons or regulating the hyper-capitalist Airbnbs of this world, cities are taking the lead. So it’s London rather than the British government that has the nerve to take action against Uber if it violates existing rules. Cities being in the vanguard is no coincidence. Even if there are more reasons at play, the fact that a local council is more easily approachable for citizens than a national government certainly has something to do with it; conversely, for a mayor it is easier to engage local actors in policy-making.
This pragmatic response, however, conceals an ideological aspect, which in my book Vrijheid & Zekerheid (Freedom and Certainty) I describe as the ‘Land of Two Currents’.2 In Europe there is both a dominant neoliberal main current and an alternative countercurrent. The main current is formed by most national governments, international institutions, and big corporations. National governments find themselves in the straitjacket of the Maastricht Treaty values (placing monetary objectives before social and ecological ones). Urban governments have more autonomy in that sense; it is simply impossible for lobbyists of large corporations to be present in every city. The city is the place where a multitude of sustainable citizen initiatives start and, like small streams feeding into a larger river, come together to strengthen each other. It’s mostly the local governance level – which is closest to the citizens – which joins this undercurrent. It’s also the place where local alternatives can successfully develop into a real political alternative. The election of Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona, running on the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú, is an illustration of how this can take place.

Joining forces
If cities want to be an active part of a novel form of transnational governance, then they have to actively found multi-city commons coalitions. This is at the same time a pragmatic proposal: as commoners and entrepreneurs take initiatives and create local standards, the need increases to make them strong enough and allow them to operate in a classical profit-orientated environment, which shifts social and ecological cost (externalities) onto society. Cities and the commons initiatives can only attain real relevance when they succeed in pooling their knowhow and infrastructure. Jointly, cities might for example support the development of open source software platforms allowing the setting-up of working commons systems for, say, car-sharing and bicycle-sharing, minting complementary coins, or the management of food production in short-chain agriculture, from seeds to online sales.
Part of this will mean sharing knowhow about the commons approach in various towns and cities. Then we can see which regulations and new institutions work most effectively in supporting commons initiatives. As a useful example, Bauwens refers to the coalition of 16 large cities signing the Barcelona Pledge and its FabCity model, which aims at relocalising half of the production of food by 2054.

The new translocal horizon
The importance of the Commons Transition Plan that Michel Bauwens devised for Ghent clearly transcends its local character. The new institutional structures that Bauwens proposes, in particular, are of crucial importance. It is clear that after a ten-year increase in citizen initiatives, Ghent needs new structures to channel this energy so as to change society and its economy in the direction of a more honest, sustainable, and shared future. All the proposed innovations at the city level will absorb a lot of time and energy from local commoners, governments, and generative entrepreneurs. There is a big danger here of everyone recognising the importance of the expansion of translocal networks, but not getting round to making them a reality. In his plan, Bauwens mentions the need for the translocal networks in addition to what has to happen in the city itself. It would be important to anchor the translocal aspect in every new institution from the start.
However, more cooperation is necessary to develop the counter-current needed. Essential in this respect are networks of cities cooperating with university networks to develop and share the necessary knowledge and design. If tomorrow 20 towns and cities allocate funds to develop, say, a digital platform for an alternative ‘Fairbnb’, and then implement it in cooperation with the urban commons actors, then there is real political leverage by a countercurrent against the neoliberal actors. That is the real struggle we are facing and the lesson to be drawn from the 1970s. In those days there was also, from the energy of what today we refer to as ‘May 68’, a broad spectrum of civilian actions and initiatives, staking a claim to more space for citizen autonomy in relation to government and economy. If this space was won in the field of, say, new rights (gay marriage, flexible career options, euthanasia…) in a number of countries, then in the field of the economy the reverse has happened – citizens have lost ground.
By organising globally, the power of the business sector has grown far above and beyond both that of the nation-state and of self-organising citizens. If the new wave of citizen movements is to acquire real power, then it will have to organise itself translocally from the beginning, whereby coalitions of cities with clear political and economic objectives take the lead. This will require an awareness and continuous attention on behalf of Green activists and politicians, which should underpin all of their actions.

1 A fab lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop providing services and equipment for digital production.
2 Vrijheid & Zekerheid. Naar een sociaalecologische samenleving (EPO, 2016, in Dutch). Dirk Holemans. An English essay with the core elements of the book will be available at the end of 2017 on the website of the Green European Foundation (Ecopro project): http://

(*) Dirk Holemans is coordinator of the Belgian Green think-tank Oikos and a member of the board of the Green European Foundation. His most recent book is ‘Vrijheid & Zekerheid’.