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Scaling the commons: the experience of the European Commons Assembly

Edited on

21 June 2019
Read time: 5 minutes

Few these days are not obsessed by reading the news. Profound and epic changes bearing political, economic and humanitarian crisis are unfolding in front of our eyes without a sign to detour from a dangerous path. The worst news is that basic democratic principles considered as given in Western democracies are more fragile now than never before.

Many look for political alternatives beyond market and state as known so far (Urban Commons: Moving Beyond State and Market), and in this panorama the concept of “commons” is emerging bearing the  promises of reframing the discontent of many, towards  more equitable socio-economic governance models. 


Commoning and the commons are concepts concerned with the management of human and natural resources. Originated in Medieval England, commons have been developed over the world assuming different names and statutes for managing rights over shared goods be land, forestry, agriculture etc.  

Economists, starting with the work of W.F. Lloyd in mid 19th century shaded lights on the limits of commons, further elaborated in the overly quoted classical piece as “tragedy “in the work of the ecologist G.Hardin in 1968. Hardin shows that under lack of regulations over a common good, exploitation due to self-interest of individuals, may lead to depletion of the good itself.  His work has been foundational for ecology, environmental science, for studying issues related to demographic growth in relation to the notion of “carrying capacity”.

Video: Tragedy of the Commons, The Problem with Open Access

Tragedy of the Commons │ The Problem with Open Access

















The answer to the risks presented in the “tragedy”, comes from the also well known work of Nobel prize for economics Elinor Ostrom. She demonstrates that communities around the world can indeed devise ways, such as common property protocols based on self-organisation, to govern the commons in order to assure its survival for their needs and future generations against depletion.

Thus, the concept of commons is not restricted to a certain practice, good, discipline or environment. Indeed, the “new commons” (Hess 2008) is open to encompass a variety of fields such as culture, technology, education, creativity and more generally knowledge (intellectual property, the open access, the development of associational commons, free/open source framework, etc) as shared social-ecological system (Hess & Ostrom 2007). Being so overarching, the definition of commons is also not univocally pinned-down. According to Bollier and Helfrich (Bollier & Helfrich 2014) the “commons is a paradigm that embodies its own logic and patterns of behaviour, functioning as a different kind of operating system for society”. Helfrich a well known Germany based activist, calls for commons as dynamics, requiring behavioural change of individuals and collectivities (Helfrich talk, Berlin sept 2016).  

Generally in the literature this change is addressed as mode for rethinking societal dependencies from market precepts on commodification and privatisation, focussing on the actual resources (material and immaterial) in common, on people involved in commoning (addressed in the literature as commoners) and the forms of  negotiation/organisation on sharing/caring those resources. This needs a context, arena or a terrain (at different scales) for this change to happen. 
But how? to what extend these debate relate to re-thinking new legislation and forms of governance such as political autonomy, self-organisation, autarchy? to what extend these discourses resonate with other anti-capitalistic movement such as right to the city, occupy or not at all?  
The response is multifaceted and its plurality might be fecund. Today there are in Europe an explosion of practices which have been labelled as commons or have been looked under the analytical lenses of commons. But they are not all the same and they do not mean the same. 
The Commons and the City
Image: The city as a commons, Bologna, 2015, LabGov
Even restricting the field into one topic closer to the work of URBACT, be for example the  “urban-commons”,  the practices remain under the same broad umbrella: urban commons touch different geographic and administrative scales, having resources at local micro level as favorite terrain (e.g. sharing building, squatting or community management of neighbourhood, parks, gardens), but not excluding the city ( e.g. the Italian experiments on Regolamento Beni Comuni as in Bologna and other Italian cities, and the Urban Innovative Actions project on commons granted to Turin), the region, and the European level. Their people have different political stances and their organisation  are open to contrast or collaborate with existing institutions in different ways. In addition, commons are sparsely located practices of commoning and not necessarily networked in a “common struggle”.  
Video: The Right to the City
Right to the City


The European Assembly of the Commons

Images: Assembly of the Commons, European Parliament, November 2016, source: FLICKR
With these open pluralities, in November 2016, the first European Commons Assembly, an initiative launched in May the same year, gathered activists, researchers, makers and people active in the movement of commons to share their experiences to explore ways to upscale the debate beyond the local. The assembly supported by the European Cultural Foundation, Lunt Foundation and Foundation Charles Léopold Mayer, organised an encounter with the representatives of the recently established “Commons Intergroup” subgroup of the European Parliamentary intergroup on “Common Goods and Public Services”. Intergroups are constituted as official forums of the European Parliament with the purpose of having a dialogue with civil societies and organisations to raise attention of the Parliament towards a specific topic. By definition intergroup do not have legislative power in the European Parliament, and the main challenge for this intergroup is in advancing a “commons agenda” to the concrete political stage of the parliament. 
The meeting was organised in three different moment of exchanges, having the central one in the actual meeting of the commoners with the politicians of the EU parliament in Brussels. 
All of us, joining the meeting knew we were part of a crucial moment in which European parliamentarians were prone to lend an ear to something happening in the streets. Yet the actual scenario was a bit unclear: what could actually mean to express a voice in the name of commoners in the Parliament?
We, as commoners, were more than a name, but rather colourful individuals with different background, the majority Europeans, different ages, slightly different political ideas, and surely different in our experiences of commons. As such, the richest part of the event was to get to know each other as “doers” in a whole different range of activities on urban regeneration, housing,  service provision, research, education and training, art, mapping, land regulation and consumption, political campaigns, open source technology, food, energy and climate change. Few random examples of the practices present at the event show the plurality of the voices:   
R-URBAN is a series of unique pilot projects currently being developed in Colombes, (French city of 80 000 inhabitants near Paris). R-urban helps to increase the capacity of urban sustainability and resilience through self sufficiency, production, recycling on a local and regional scale, with development of social economies and renewable energies such as Agrocité with micro experimental farm, community garden, educational and cultural spaces. 
The Independent Practitioners Networks - IPN - is a group of independent practitioners such as counsellors, psychotherapists, educators and other, that offer and share their competencies in the spirit of freedom of practice. Based on self and peer assessment and accreditation through a continuous process of monitoring members’ work, the INP believes that no organisation has the right or ability to decide who should practice therapy, facilitation or equivalents skills.
URBAMONDE an NGO founded in 2005 in Geneva under the name Urbanistes sans Frontières - International (USFI) supporting community-led habitat projects in Global North and Global South, to consolidate civic-public partnerships for a more sustainable and inclusive urban development.
In the words of Silke Heilfrich, “this was definitely the first European meeting of commoners whose main issue is deepening democracy and this is the first step for building energies together”.
Video: A Conversation between DiEM25 and Commoners: How to Build an Alternative Together?
A Conversation between DiEM25 and Commoners: How to Build an Alternative Together?
Many asked how this will deal with the multiple definitions of commons, the diversity of voices, and the wide-open agenda of suitable topics.
“There are thus two possibilities. Either: social movements will face up to the challenge and re-found the commons on values of social justice in spite of, and beyond, these capitalist hierarchies. Or: capital will seize the historical moment to use them to initiate a new round of accumulation (i.e. growth)”. Massimo De Angelis in Turbulence News Blog.







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