Grabbing Urban Public Spaces as Commons

Grabbing Urban Public Spaces as Commons: a Project Manifesto

Urban gardening has been considered an important “cultural, ecological and social resource”(H. Lebhuhn 2012). When the practice of community gardening started, many of today’s community gardens in North America and Europe took the shape of squats or informal “guerilla style” gardens and were influenced by urban social and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
However, today many cities recognise the great value of community gardens and create programs to protect and support them. Therefore, on one hand, the successful institutionalization of community gardens for their safeguarding in times of rapid market driven urbanization is a great success. On the other hand, the incorporation of community gardens – and of organizations that maintain and promote them – into the urban political system often comes at a price: the loss of a vision for a radically different city. Indeed, for the majority of the political establishment community gardens are not “good” because of the radical dynamics they might unfold.
Of course, this is not to say that all community gardeners have necessarily been co-opted, because communal gardening can still facilitate critical reflection and political action. However, today’s community garden activists have to manoeuvre in a difficult political terrain marked by urban growth policies, environmental and social depredation. As Henrik Lebhuhn argues (ibid.), this is due mainly to the following factors:
1) Local governments develop their own economic policies by attracting new investors as well as by actively funding large commercial developments and global events, international conventions and art biennials. Meanwhile, public enterprises are being privatized and the public sector downsized. Losses are socialised and profits privatised, we would add;
2) Economic policies take priority over social policies. Local budgets for public housing, culture, education, and health care are shrinking, while mega-projects such as convention centres, sport stadiums and high-end research facilities often receive generous funding;
3) At the same time, within this process the local political arena is being opened up to new actors, such as neighbourhood groups, non profit organisations, consulting firms and other private and semi-public entities.

This is part of the logic of neoliberalism, which has at least offered new opportunities to actively participate in politics, especially at the local level. By this strategy, neoliberalism has successfully incorporated civil-society organizations into the political machinery. This has been true in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in Europe and the US. It is something that might look as highly political, but that risks to be depoliticizing, since real political power remains centralized in the state and, even more, in the transnational institutions that rule today’s world, such as IMF, World Bank, the federal banks and the cloudy private international rating agencies.
In fact, it happens that civil society organizations, foundations, private agencies, and individual volunteers regenerate their neighbourhoods and deliver social services at low or even no costs for the state. On the other hand, citizen participation creates social cohesion and feelings of community and belonging that are indispensable requirements for political stability and domination over time. The state obtain its objective costlessly.

Summarising, what has been named the “new politics of work” – work outside the capitalist logic of private property, monetary value and wage labour – provides people with the experience of “(re-) appropriating their time and technological know-how from the market”. At the same time, it is necessary to counteract the hegemony of the logic of neoliberalism by addressing new communitarian practices under the label of the commons. The commons (namely, the complex product of a participatory involvement of one or more communities willing to negotiate and attribute a specific value to a range of objects and resources which are identified, accessed and practiced as communal and shared property) are, today, one of the few possibilities to build up a new hegemony that challenges the a-temporal and a-territorial dimensions set up by the actors of turbo-capitalism.
It is in this sense, maybe, that community gardens “have become battlegrounds for opposing social dynamics … .” They provide space for “unregulated social interaction” and they are “important arenas for multi-generational circuits of communication, memory, and experience” (Carlsson, 2008, 81-83, cited in Lebhuhn). Whether as a site of open political protest or as a space of subversive everyday practices, community gardens play an important role in nurturing resistance to neoliberalism.
Community gardens and, generally speaking, the practice of the commons bring together residents and neighbours from diverse backgrounds, mobilize them along issues of social inequality and urban sustainability, and challenge the politics of private enclosure and urban growth solely linked to the logic of private profit (see C. Müller, 2012). As the authors already quoted suggest, however, If community gardens are not explicitly politicized, they can be easily integrated into the neoliberal regime. This is an event which we have to watch out carefully because, as the philosopher Nicholas Rose suggests, neoliberalism governmentality is that of “governing through community”.

If we assume a diachronic perspective, we can observe the return of gardens to the city almost everywhere, and see it as an expression of a changing relationship between the public and the private. Namely, as one of the aspect of the raising politics of the commons. And it is not only this dominant differentiation in modern society that is increasingly becoming blurred; as Christa Muller (2012) also suggests, the differences between nature and society as well as that between city and countryside are fading. What this author observes is a shifting in the symbolism and status of post-materialistic values and lifestyles. Urban gardening means setting oneself apart from a life of consuming objects of industrial production.
Today’s urban community gardens and open workshops seem to be developing into hothouses of social solidarity. Again, during the last decades many people, going beyond issues such as social classes (but we pose that social classes still exists, operates and shape our social world) have been joining forces and planting organic gardens in major European cities.

The innovative character of communal practices such as occupy movements or urban gardening lay, perhaps, in the use of ICT, that is, new social media and Web 2.0 technology. The growing rhetoric of the smart cities, again, is one of the risks that we have to be able to counteract, since social innovation and democratic participation or active citizenship means inviting people to interact virtually, while we know that it is the body that always permits to perform a real change. Furthermore, deciding that development, whatever it may be, will come along through new technologies, means once again that we are emphasizing a discourse where real production and on-the-ground labour tend to disappear. This is risky, indeed.
However, the positive side of the coin is that the digital is fostering creativity while creating new intermediate worlds that combine open source practices with subsistence-oriented practices of everyday life. Open source is the key, here: the free and open participation and involvement of the neighbourhoods are essential principles for urban activists. For instance, it is common to see that gardens are used and managed as commons even if the gardeners do not personally own the land. The contrary is also true: sometimes it happens that gardens are managed as private even if the grounds on which they are located are private. Therefore, the key element lays in the use of the land, rather than in its ownership structure.

If we look at the positive outputs of urban gardening as politics of the commons, we may see that commons-oriented practices enable a different perspective on the city because they both require communities and at the same time create communities. This concretely builds an alternative to the dominant order based on market fundamentalism (Werner 2011, in C. Müller, ibid.).
The effect is that local commons are managed as places where one can raise awareness about a new concept of public, while simultaneously demonstrating that there are indeed alternatives to the paradigm of private property. In other words, cooperation rather than individualism. This is a useful device in order to build a new counter-hegemony to neoliberalism, which nurture communality only in order to normalise society, while at the same time operates in order to lower social ties by emphasising individualism. It may sounds as contradictory, and perhaps it is. Complexity is difficult to be explained, while populism offer a simple interpretation the reach people’ bellies. What we are dealing with, at the end, is how the concept and practice of democracy will change, or not change, during the next years.
Giancarlo Pichillo

Cited texts:
Bollier, D. The Commons, Political Transformation and Cities (http://bollier.org/commons-political-transformation-and-cities).
European Commission, DG for Research SSH, 2010. World and European Sustainable Cities. Insights from EU research.
Lebhuhn, Heinrik. Community Gardening and Grassroot politics in the neoliberal city. Humboldt-Universitata Zu Berlin.
Müller, Christa, 2012. Practicing Commons in Community Gardens: Urban Gardening as a Corrective for Homo Economicus. In, Bollier, D. & Helfrich, S., ed. by. The wealth of the commons. A world beyond market and State. Amherst, pp. 219-224.
Rabinowitz, D. 2012. Residual residential space as Commons. In, International Journal of the Commons, Vol. 6, No. 2 (http://www.thecommonsjournal.org/index.php/ijc/article/view/300/267).

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