Ostrom in the City: Design Principles and Practices for the Urban Commons
Forthcoming, Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons (Dan Cole, Blake Hudson, Jonathan Rosenbloom eds.)
24 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2018 Last revised: 12 Mar 2018
Date Written: February 26, 2018
If cities are the places where most of the world’s population will be living in the next century, as is predicted, it is not surprising that they have become sites of contestation over use and access to urban land, open space, infrastructure, and culture. One answer to the question posed by some--"who owns the city?"-- is that we all do. In our work we argue that the city is a common good or a “commons”—a shared resource that belongs to all of its inhabitants, and to the public more generally.
We have been writing about the urban commons for the last decade, very much inspired by the work of Elinor Ostrom, who found that common resources are capable of being collectively managed by users in ways that support their needs yet sustains the resource over the long run. Our work has explored whether the commons can be a framework for addressing a host of internal and external resource challenges facing cities, and specifically to rethinking how city space and shared goods are used, who has access to them, and how their resources are allocated and distributed.
Recognizing that there are many tangible and intangible urban resources on which differently situated individuals and communities depend to meet a variety of human needs, what might it look like to bring more polycentric tools to govern the city, or parts of the city, as a “commons?” Is it possible to effectively manage shared urban resources without privatizing them or exercising monopolistic public regulatory control over them, especially given that regulators tend to be captured by economic elites? Can the Ostrom design principles be applied to cities to rethink the governance of cities and the management of their resources? We think they cannot be simply adapted to the city context without significant modification.
Cities and many kinds of urban commons are different from natural resources and more traditional commons in important ways. This is why, starting ten years ago, we both began to explore the governance of the urban commons as a separate body of study first investigating individually how different kinds of urban assets such as community gardens, parks, neighborhoods and urban infrastructure such as urban roads could be reconceived as urban commons, and later jointly to conceive the whole city as a commons. We realized that we needed a different approach to bridge urban studies and commons studies and therefore to pose a slightly different set of questions for the governance of the urban commons. We also needed to define a different set of design principles for the management of urban commons in the city and the city itself as a commons.
For this reason, we have been surveying and mapping 100 cities around the world and 200 examples of urban commons within them. The goal of this research project is to enhance our collective knowledge about the various ways to govern urban commons, and the city itself as a commons, in different geographic, social and economic contexts. From this study, we have extracted a set of design principles that are distinctively different from those offered by Elinor Ostrom and which can be applied to govern different kinds of urban commons, and cities as commons. Specifically, we investigate whether these design principles can help cities transition to fairer, inclusive, sustainable, resilient futures given existing patterns of urbanization and the contested nature of urban resources such as public spaces, open or vacant land, abandoned and underutilized structures, and aging infrastructure. In our study, we see examples of how these resources can be governed as a commons in cities around the world.
Having identified design principles for urban commons, we offer examples of some of the recurring institutional, financial, and legal mechanisms or tools that are employed to construct, govern, and sustain a variety of shared urban resources consistent with the principles set out in the chapter. The design principles can lead to the production of very different urban commons governance devices which need to be adapted to the local context and the needs of local communities. We have grouped these forms of urban commons governance mechanisms and tools into four main categories: institutional, legal, financial and digital. For each, we offer a brief description and an example or two from our case studies and field observations and explain how they manifest different design principles.
Keywords: urban commons, design principles, co-city, city, city commons, city as a commons, urban law, urban law and policy
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