The City as Commons

A broadly held view in the modern world is that economic relations are best governed by some mix of state regulation, and market-mediated exchange of privately owned resources. This tends to reflect a deeper assumption: ‘ordinary citizens’ are not well placed to collectively organise the managing of resources in which they have shared interests – left to their own devices, narrow self-interest will eventually lead to over-exploitation and deterioration of the resource. The dominance of states and markets in arranging economic life is, however, a relatively recent development in public policy thinking. And it was in the wake of Garret Hardin’s (famous or infamous depending on who you ask)1968 essay ‘The tragedy of the commons’ that the idea gained widespread popular appeal in liberal democracies.[1]

Today though, while the state-private duopoly continues as the dominant influence in economic governance, claims for its exclusive empirical validity or moral superiority no longer remain tenable. This is thanks in large part to the work of political economist Elenor Ostrom, co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for her work demonstrating that successful commons remain alive and well around the world today. There are many situations where resources held and managed in common by those relying on them to meet their needs are simply not subject to the fate ascribed by Hardin. Such management may even improve the state of a commons.

The idea that many life-enabling cultural and natural resources should be held in common by and for a group of beneficiaries, and not privately owned, is rapidly rising to prominence again. A worldwide upsurge in commoning has followed in the wake of the economic dislocations wreaked by market and state failures that resulted in the 2008 global financial crisis. Many are now working for a greater role for commons-based governance as a bona fide third alternative alongside markets and state regulation.

Against this background, I’m delighted to announce the publication in July of The City as Commons: A Policy Reader.[2] A product of the creative inspiration (and hard work) of editor José Ramos — assisted by Emily Sims, and with cover design by Scott Boylston — the reader brings together thirty-four contributions from thirty-one writers, to explore urban living through the idea of ‘the commons’. In my own terms, the central idea behind the project is that we can understand cities better when we see that they both comprise and are enabled by commonly-held resources: resources – both physical and cultural – upon which people mutually depend for living well together. And such understanding can support the development of cities in the best interests of their citizens.

A complete list of contributions is provided below.

Introduction: The City as Commons: a Policy Reader José Ramos
Design and the City Commons Marco Bevolo
Active Transit & City Commons: Putting People Back into the City & the City Back into Place Anthony James
Repurposing Public Spaces in a City as a Commons: the Library Sandrina Burkhardt
Heritage and City Commons Marta Botta
Sharing Cities: An Asset-based Approach to the Urban Commons Darren Sharp
Community Currencies and City Commons Michael Linton
Time Banks and City Commoning Teppo Eskelinen
Construction Waste Transformation and City Commons Scott Boylston
Platform Cooperatives for Democratic Cities Nathan Schneider
Coworking: Challenges and Opportunities for a Prosperous and Fair New Economy Julian Waters-Lynch
Orchards and the City as a Commons Timothy Dolan
Cosmo-localism and Urban Commoning José Ramos
City Commons and Energy Demand Josh Floyd
It’s Time to Create Chambers of Commons David Ronfeldt
Sharing Cities: Governing the City as Commons Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman
Devolved Commons Governance for Cities David Week
Anticipatory Governance and the City as a Commons José Ramos
A Civic Union David Week
Tax Reform for a Commons-based City Karl Fitzgerald
Tax Delinquent Private Property and City Commons Paula Z. Segal
Community Land Trusts Karl Fitzgerald
The City as a Regional Commons Colin Russo
Open Data and City Commons Paula Z. Segal
Human Service Directory Data as a Commons Greg Bloom
The Unseen City: Commons Oriented Cities and the Commons Beyond Sharon Ede
Culture as Commons Arlene Goldbard
Ubuntu as a Primer for City Commons Charles Ikem
Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and the City as Commons Cherie Minniecon
Bologna Celebrates One Year of a Bold Experiment in Urban Commoning Neal Gorenflo
Milano, New Practices to Booster Social Innovation Monica Bernardi
The Emergence of Assemblies of the Commons Maïa Dereva
History and Evolution of the Chamber of Commons Idea David Ronfeldt, compiled by Michel Bauwens
Big Blue Sky: Re-igniting the Art of Citizenship Christine McDougall
Zaragoza Activa, an Ecosystem of Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation and Creativity, in an Old Sugar Factory Raúl Oliván

In his editorial introduction, José describes five major themes he sees emerging through the contributions. These present five perspectives from which the urban commons can be seen as representing:

  • A new political contract
  • A new culture of citizenship
  • New value exchange systems
  • New visibility for what has been invisible; and
  • A new way of seeing the city.

My own contribution is presented in full below. The ideas it starts to explore can be linked with each of José’s themes. But if I was to identify it with one in particular, ‘urban commons as new visibility for what has been invisible’ would be particularly relevant. The brief sets out an introductory case for seeing energy demand expectations being in important respects constructed for citizens, by the interactions between development priorities of political elites, design decisions of technical experts and market imperatives of private capital. So I’m attempting to shine a critical light on something that tends to rest below the surface of awareness in day to day life. Demand expectations can have an apparent ‘naturalness’ about them when we’re immersed in daily routines within familiar surrounds. But to what extent can the choices we exercise in the act of living within urban environments be viewed as genuinely free? I argue here that the institutional and infrastructural contexts of urban life place significant constraints on the pathways among which we can choose – and that free participation in the design of these available pathways can itself be imagined as a commons. Nurturing such commons may have an important role to play in preserving the cultural and social values of cities under conditions very different to those under which their current forms and qualities have taken shape.

These are matters that go to the heart of what Beyond this Brief Anomaly is about. The brief below only scratches the surface in a very introductory way, in terms of working out what these ideas might offer for navigating the transitions ahead, and – of particular relevance – how urban environments and urban citizenship might change in response to shifts in the ways that energy is supplied and used. I think this offers a rich vein for further inquiry.

 City Commons and Energy Demand

 The social legacy of fossil fuelled abundance

Fossil fuels have enabled essentially unconstrained increase in energy demand in rich and even middle-income societies. Even in the lowest income societies where purchasing power limits demand, fossil fuels have enabled the energy intensive mechanisation of daily life to a degree that shapes almost all social and economic relations.

To the extent that such relations define what are taken as ‘normal ways of life’ in contemporary highly urbanised and industrialised societies, they also act as reference points for preferred futures. In this sense, typical life expectations held by citizens of such societies – and the attendant energy demand levels – can themselves be viewed as products of fossil fuels. Influences such as capitalist finance, development values of consumerism and technological innovation, and worldviews emphasising human dominion over the earth may play more significant proximate roles in the particular forms those expectations take. But the physical scale, geographic scope and cultural ubiquity of such life expectations have been realised – and hence normalised – only in the context of energy sources with the special characteristics of fossil fuels.

The need to transition energy supply away from fossil sources due to climate change is now broadly accepted in the public sphere. The default mode for approaching energy transition policy (and by extension, climate change response) is to take the nature and scale of existing demand expectations formed in the context of fossil fuels as given. Policy responses are therefore heavily weighted to the supply side – the replacement of fossil fuel energy systems with renewable alternatives. This is regarded principally as a technical and engineering task, once conducive institutional structures are in place.

There are numerous under-appreciated technical challenges to the adequacy of this supply-side focus, even within the dominant logic of government and private sectors as the lead transition agents. In thinking about a commons-led – and moreover, commons-oriented – approach to energy transition, very significant yet under-appreciated social consequences of the supply-side emphasis also come to the fore. By giving priority to desirable social outcomes, commons-led initiatives offer advantages well beyond the economic benefits of common ownership and management of supply. In order for commons-led approaches to realise their full social potential, it will be advantageous to start from a set of premises different to that which drives the default supply-side focus in other spheres.

Energy supply’s limitations as a development driver

 The supply-side focus is currently underpinned by an uncritical view that treats high levels of per capita energy use as inherently desirable. This may not be explicitly stated, but follows from the very strong correlation between energy use and GDP. Historically, GDP per capita and energy use per capita track one another closely. On this basis, it can be inferred that reducing energy use will entail reduced GDP (subject to any productivity increase due to energy efficiency improvements). As a broad rule of thumb, where GDP growth is prioritised, then so too is growth in energy use.

This is a consequence of assessing societal well-being in terms of standard of living as measured by GDP. Shifting to the UN Human Development Index (HDI) as the lead indicator for well-being, it is readily apparent that there is a saturation point beyond which increased per-capita energy use leads to no further increase in HDI. In fact, there may be a negative correlation beyond a certain energy use level.

Energy sufficiency and the commons

From a commons perspective though, there is more at stake. Forty years ago, Ivan Illich recognised that beyond a certain threshold of energy use ‘technical processes begin to dictate social relations’.[3](p.8) Energy intensive mechanisation is capital intensive and requires high levels of technical specialisation, regardless of the primary energy source. A vicious cycle results whereby increasing energy intensity of daily life requires increasing investment of resources in the institutions and infrastructure that enable energy intense mechanisation. The decisions open to citizens about how they spend their time become increasingly constrained by the investment decisions of those who control capital flows, and by the technical specialists who design the systems of mechanisation. Civic participation then requires citizens to be both consumers and – through the employment opportunities available – producers of mechanised products and services.

This is not an argument for doing away with all mechanisation, but of recognising that it provides negative social returns beyond a certain relatively modest level. The perverse effects of constructing cities around personal automobiles provide the most obvious example, but the broad implications in the transport realm apply to other areas of life. The general insight from a commoning perspective is that the range of lifeways amongst which people can freely choose can itself be regarded as a common resource. Extremes of energy intensive mechanisation, by displacing ‘human power’ as a viable and practical alternative for meeting people’s needs, diminish this common resource. Therefore, there are commons-oriented benefits available where cities make efforts to converge on sufficient, rather than maximum, energy demand levels. This will have flow on benefits for the viability of common ownership and management of energy supply systems.

Examples and links

I’m not aware of any city-scale situations to date where ‘demand sufficiency‘ has been pursued as an explicit aspect of energy transition efforts. There are, however, numerous situations where this is an implicit co-benefit of initiatives based on other starting premises. Examples include:

  • The Slow Cities movement encourages urban ways of life that are implicitly less energy intensive.
  • Hans Moderman’s Shared Space approach to urban design, relying on social interaction to calm traffic and promote active transport viability. The community-focused urban development work of David Engwicht in Australia is based on similar principles.

Parallels can be seen in permaculture design principles, which take advantage of natural energy flows to the maximum possible extent, and favour low-energy development in general.

And at larger scale, Bhutan’s efforts to pursue a development path based on Gross National Happiness in preference to GDP growth are potentially aligned with a demand sufficiency ethos.

Policy Recommendations

  • Introduce approaches to establishing urban development purposes and priorities that acknowledge the ‘psychosocial dynamics’ of human well-being, in place of a reliance on conventional development indices (including subjective well-being). See [4]
  • Introduce the concept of ‘effective speed’ as a performance measure in urban transport planning. See [5];[6]
  • Promote urban design principles and practices that encourage or require reduced transit speeds for mechanised transport, in order to allow active transport modes (and alternative non-transport uses of public space) to compete on a more equal footing.
  • Promote and support reduced and flexible working hours, in order to increase the viability of ‘human powered’ options for meeting basic needs by reducing time pressure.


[1] Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162 (3859), 1243-1248.

[2]  Ramos, J. M. (Ed.). (2016). The City as Commons: A Policy Reader. Melbourne, Australia: Commons Transition Coalition.

[3] Illich, I. (1974), Energy and Equity,  Vol. 45, Anshen, R. N. (Ed.), Harper & Row, New York.

[4] Eckersley, R. M. (2016), “Is the West really the best? Modernisation and the psychosocial dynamics of human progress and development”, Oxford Development Studies, Vol., pp. 1-17.

[5] Tranter, P. J. & May, M. (2005), “Questioning the need for speed: can “effective speed” guide change in travel behaviour and transport policy?”, Proceedings of the 28th Australasian Transport Research Forum, 28–30 September, Sydney, viewed at

[6] May, M., Tranter, P. J. & Warn, J. R. (2011), “Progressing road safety through deep change and transformational leadership”, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 19 No. 6, pp. 1423-1430.

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