LabGov Amsterdam | Masterclass by Sheila Foster at Pakhuis de Zwijger

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On the 13th of September Sheila Foster had a visit at Pakhuis de Zwijger (PDZ) to share her insights and experiences from the Laboratories for the Governance of the Commons in Bologna and New York, as well as, in the light of a new project – LabgGov Amsterdam, organise a masterclass with a full room of active urban innovators from The Netherlands to talk about urban commoning in Amsterdam.

Sheila Foster and Joachim Meerkerk have welcomed Dutch urban enthusiasts from various sectors and emphasised that the Governance of the Commons goes hand-in-hand with New Democracy series organised by PDZ. These series aim attention at the democratic renewal as a transition phenomenon, which underlines both major global social and economic trends, such as, digitisation, and also niche practices, like initiatives at a grassroots level or other bottom-up practices in the city. The crucial aspect of this is to investigate how both global and bottom-up currents simultaneously put pressure and force the current government regime, which is based on public-private governance, to transit to sustainable public-private-community governance structures.

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“This sheds a light on the distinction between urban commons and city as a commons. Urban commons is the set of practices on the ground and city as a commons is about changing the way city has been governed”– tells S. Foster.

Thus, talking about City as a Commons, it is important to think about a cultural shift in a city at large. This implies that the commons should be a leading way of thinking how to govern the city. The idea of the city as a commons is actually to have it so largely spread that it becomes the way of doing business. The crucial step in between though is translating the community-led practices, such as the urban community gardens, redevelopment of a park or a street to a hyper-local regulatory that makes it sustainable and protects against the market or any political changes in a democratic system (e.g. elections). And this is where LabGov comes in to facilitate the process.

Still having in mind Saskia Sassen’s overarching meta-analysis on economic, social and democratic exclusion of people in many different countries and many different layers of society (see more about it here), S. Foster stresses that it is important to see how it actually plays out on the communities on the ground. Thus, while talking about commons empirical analysis is significant, but it is not enough, the bottom-line is how, for instance, climate change affects the communities and which communities does it affect.

“It is worth emphasising that commons-related practices have been there for a while, we are not talking about something that hasn’t been done yet. What we need is to focus on how to make this a sustainable movement. There are so many small-scale initiatives, which in a multiple ways address issues related to environmental challenges, migration and inequality. It is important to support them, identify where they are lacking expertise and then scale-up – this forms a new paradigm that challenges the way our old system has been regulated” – S. Foster says.  

Thus, the discourse on commons illuminates that by getting things done on the ground already has a major impact, and properly facilitated, has the full potential to lead to the new governance structures based on: social pooling i.e. pool of means and resources, enabling state and polycentricism or collaboration among and between 5 actors (the private, the public, knowledge institutions, civic social organisations and the unorganised public).

Foster and J. Meerkerk agree that the community, not the experts, should have the leading role here. “The model is less interested in the work that the communities do, because a lot of the communities are already doing it right and it’s not that we have to go to the communities and tell how to manage their commons”– stresses S. Foster. LabGov’s role is to help to sustain the practices, provide a network of experts and a toolbox to do this in different contexts.

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Since commons are identified as city resources upon which a number of stakeholders rely (they could be tangible, intangible or digital goods such as knowledge, culture, security, infrastructure, and neighbourhood commons, among others, which are functional to the individual and collective well-being), the solutions to commons-related issues are various. Regarding the tools to facilitate the progress towards the city as a commons, again, there are many and various, what is necessary is to rediscover them in different localities. Being a property law expert S. Foster has put the most of her energy into administrative and legal ones – “property is a powerful framework while talking about the commons, because this is how things have been managed” – adds S. Foster.

Additionally, S. Foster refers to the tragedy of commons at the city, like what has happened to Detroit or what happens to the park that is not well managed, or what happens to an informal settlement (more about this here). There is a lens to say how we address the tragedy of the commons at the city, and one of the ways to do it is by using a normative claim, rather than a description of a problem (tragedy of commons) that needs solution, or, as conventionally addressed, a regime of ownership. By normative claim S. Foster means that, for instance, urban land should be held for the people, not bought and sold by private companies or state to make profit out of it. Commons is a resource that is commonly owned or not owned at all, but available to all. Thus, urban land is commons. Therefore, if the rules of property remain the same, then it is hardly possible to sustain the Governance of the Commons. This particular approach – “using the legal language”- is meant to protect and consolidate ground-up movements, make them sustainable with a fully protected status. J. Meerkrek agrees that later on “by having similar practices with an ample of initiatives creates an opening for a “virus” and when replicated, not only sustainability, but also scaling-up could be achieved.”

City is not a pre-political space, it is a highly regulated space hence the story of commons is a story of a value of collective production and consumption where regulation or a governance structure with a local government involved is necessary. There is no commons narrative yet for the use value and positive value of co-creation – collectively governing the resource that is commonly ours to co-create cities, which is a notion that goes hand-in-hand with the City Makers movement. Therefore, first it is important to address whose resource is it, and as S. Foster stresses the claim, it should be recognised that the city is our collective resource.

The social function of the property supports the commons based claims, unfortunately, people cannot just claim the common, communities have to have a legal right to the commons and the governance of it. “If you don’t work with the system that regulates it, commons is very fragile and a community can easily loose the access to it. That is the thing of “protecting” the commons” – tells S. Foster.

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In an urban context, which is all built, the tools that S. Foster has emphasised during the masterclass were the public trust doctrine, park conservancies, park trusts or community land trusts, which are legal entities in and of themselves.  Community land trust emphasises the collective governance structure that has its own legal instruments, checks and balances, to assure affordability of a common in a highly speculative market. This, as a matter, of fact is one of the main co-design issues : “how do you design an inclusive governance structure of a common?” As a follow-up, another question comes out: “how do you finance the commons?” One of the practices that S. Foster has introduced during the masterclass wasparticipatory budgeting (watch a video about it here), but it is necessary to figure out other ways as well.

At the masterclass S. Foster has shared her experiences from New York, where LabGov has worked with 3 different community-led initiatives related to environmental issues. The focal point of S. Foster work is to focus on community based adaptation and resilience. LabGov NYC has facilitated these communities by framing and shaping their activities in civil right, legal terms, by listening and understanding their needs, identifying where they need more power and legal support, as well as, bringing other actors to the play and figuring out how to bring all of this to the city’s administration bodies – elevate issues and force the local decision makers to change. Thus far, it has been indeed a great success, because now the state agencies have environmental justice and climate action plans implemented in their agendas. “Environmental action plans now include community land trusts and local grids, and this was not the case before”- presents S. Foster.

Nonetheless, environment-related problems and community based-resilience that S. Foster has been working on is not an isolated issue, and it should be addressed through the lenses of inequality at the neighbourhood level. S. Foster stressed that communities that usually suffer the most from climate change have experienced gentrification, they are poor, and with a high migrant population. Aspects like immigration status, access to services, built environment among others are significant here. Of course, macro-analysis can capture this, as there are set of factors that determine the vulnerability, which differs even within the communities, see Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). However, this requires micro-analysis and a close contact with people. This also illuminates the fact that, for instance, legal tools are significant to open up opportunities for commons, but as eventually it comes to the question of governance and how to manage a collective resource, it is important to investigate the needs of communities, exact causes of their vulnerability and then design policies that respond to that. The commons model is a model of collaboration that brings together the right actors. Collaboration with people can truly influence change, and as LabGov is a strong group of experts who speak the language of communities and are able to articulate it at the city level, in the end the way city’s resources are allocated depends on LabGov’s findings and a city has live up to that.

Thus, commons brings a new vision of a city, which is sustainable in  economic, social and environmental terms. Yet, the progress to city as a commons is rarely linear. Cities need to help communities to co-create – mayors should focus on how their cities can sustain governance of the commons and facilitate resilient communities. LabGov hence by identifying communities at the grassroots level and having a strong relation with the city can hence provide the right knowledge, know-how, principles and how-to’s in order to locate the expertise in different contexts. The toolbox thus could point people and say “Listen, you want to turn that building in your neighbourhood into a commons? Here is what you need to do”.