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Realising The Commons

ODI Leeds recently hosted a community philosophy workshop as part of the Leeds City Community Urban Commons Mapping Project. The workshop aimed to explore what was meant by "urban commons". These notes constitute the collective, distilled thoughts and aspirations of those that participated in the workshop.

Community of Enquiry

The following questions were generated after having constructed a concept web:

  • Who looks after The Commons?
  • What is a healthy balance between formal & informal stewardship?
  • What is in it for me?
  • What does all this refer to - space, other things?
  • What are the different types [of Commons]?
  • What's distinct / common between physical & digital Commons?
  • How are we as a group (& others?) going to take this forward?
  • How would a new Common be established through identifying the Commoner & Steward?
  • How is equality of access & benefit negotiated?
  • What are the different types of Commons?
  • How do we define the difference between public land & common land?
  • How can new Commons emerge?
  • Who determines the boundaries?
  • Who owns the space (digital & physical)?
Concept map
A digital version of the concept map constructed during the workshop.

The following question was chosen for the enquiry

"Who owns & controls the existing (& emerging) Commons?"

Enquiry concept timeline

Control → stewardship → managed → enable control → imagine → potential >who has the key? → accessibility → ownership → negotiate → come together → discussion → facilitated → rules → standards → details [of] → how do we get new people? → what is it for? → expectations → shared idea/s → aesthetics → explicit [process, method, image] → acceptability → what's neighbourly? → how to have a conversation → principles of the Commons → as principles of discussion → temporality → continuous → constantly ask for feedback → appreciative [appraisal] → open contribution → imagination → accessibility of process → time for thinking → dreaming → facilitation → stewardship → open-hearted → imaginative → sensory → where are they? → spatial → space → not just physical → explicit → [self-]interest → including individual voice → honesty → disclosure → what is it you think? → potential → possibility >not linear → facilitation [cf. agenda] → who? → not the 'authorities' → self-facilitation → capacity-building & functioning → social capital → internal → knowledge, skills & attitudes.

Venn diagram showing the digital and physical commons.

Parked questions

Commons were 'gifted' by powerful people to 'Commoners'. They are a relic of a feudal system that is all about exerting power over Commoners.

Outcomes statement

The Commons, our enquiry found, is, essentially, about people, employing a process based on a range of principles to use, and re-use (i.e. make sustainable) a particular resource. In this sense, the concept of space should be understood as having many dimensions, from the physical to the non-physical. Each and all should be defined by the people involved; here 'space' encompasses their definition of their needs, interests and concerns. Therein, these people - Commoners - and the process used are as intrinsic to the definition of The Commons as the physical spaces they are so often reduced to.

Commoners need the capacity to facilitate, ideally themselves, this process and must commit to these principles (in whatever form they negotiate). These principles are, in turn, applicable to the use and stewardship of the physical or other resources that constitute The Commons. Some people may need support and encouragement to develop this capacity, and confidence in it. This includes gaining related knowledge, skills and attitudes. In this sense, realising The Commons is a process of community learning that aims at clarifying and agreeing a way forward, reflecting regularly on what's been learnt, and amending agreements on a continual and evolving basis. Hence, the temporalities of The Commons are important; the process is fluid, experimental, active, on-going, cyclical, evolving, emergent, requires constant re-iteration and is probably non-linear, and without a specified 'end'. It emphasises listening, observing and visualising as much as speaking.

The design of the process should prioritise inclusivity and responsiveness; it should enable new members to easily access and therefore become integrated into the process at whatever time.

We found also that The Commons constitutes a process of community development which owes much to active team-building through acknowledging, appreciating and celebrating the contributions of members, being non-judgemental, and emphasising social and fun aspects.

Members need to have faith in themselves and in each other that, by engaging in this process in an open-hearted and open-minded way, change will materialise over time. This is seen as in contrast to more commonly (Sic.) experienced forced, top-down, processes, defined by the need to accomplish outcomes with specified time scales. Some criticality is also needed, particularly with respect to 'boundary conditions'.

The principles alluded to, and, therein, the process of The Commons, include:

Openness, accessibility, honesty, a commitment to inclusion, enabling people to feel and be powerful and in control of a process (or at least believe they have permission) in which they can do something in their neighbourhoods.

The Commons as a discursive process should encourage members to make explicit (disclose) and acknowledge each other's agendas, self-interests, feelings and motivations, capabilities. It should be an aim to seek mutual understanding of these and others' agendas.

These other agendas include political systems; the process should aim to raise awareness of the impact these systems might have on people wanting to realise The Commons.

The ultimate aim of The Commons should be the realisation of hope and potential.

There may be times when newer groups need the support of facilitators, guides and mentors; however, what's most important is the existence of a facilitating process.

Going forward, we need to design a range of social processes capable of enabling new Commons. These need to be tested for what works, whilst appreciating that different processes may be needed in different areas, for example where there are established community groups, or not, as the case may be. This represents a re-iteration of the enquiry: the Commons is just as much a social, people-oriented, phenomena as it is physical i.e. space.

These processes need to be tested in relation to a number of spaces and / or digital resources / contexts, as identified through the mapping of potential Commons.

In the first instance, it is proposed to map the ownership of land. Here, scale matters; we should start with some specific areas, perhaps publically owned land and map these.

This data needs to be analysed / mapped against the principles of The Commons we have identified (see also those of Elinor Ostrom): 'which, if any, of these principles apply to / are identifiably present within these areas?' Which, of these public owned areas are Commonly-held, and to what degree?

The developing 'open data base' should be used to 'understand' the land in a variety of forms. These include use and degrees of disuse. These findings should be subject to further analysis, such as thinking about potential and possible use of the land; the presence of 'significant' and inspiring community members / 'community doers' (see FR poteau) and implicitly then potential 'stewards'; 'Commoner' knowledge (things that the communities know). In this sense, these non-physical resources will be mapped on top of the physical data.

The aim should be to learn, elaborate, build capacities, competencies and confidences amongst wider populations to support their involvement.

A 'tool' or template should be created; one that is accessible and that anyone can use to begin to think, imagine, create, document and capture how The Commons might work for them. Some will need help to learn how to use it.

Volunteers should be encouraged to undertake mapping / help map the data.

Ideas and stories (and other forms of data) should be shared among groups and be used to stimulate the formation of other groups and wider learning.

The Commons should be about the democratisation of data as much as unlocking social and spatial capital.

The development of a network is imagined; it should aim to support learning across the city and to produce a map to support the development of The Commons. The map will enable identification and analysis of the network of actual and potential spaces. It will stimulate discussion about boundaries (in all their forms) and how these boundaries should be determined. It will be an ever-changing, evolving entity, designed and co-produced on the basis of the process articulated above; respectfully of history but not treating it as sacrosanct. It will be responsive to conclusions drawn from trial and error, unashamedly messy at origin, becoming clearer as time goes on, responsive to questions about the management of change: those using it will have the power and right to change it in their efforts to create self-managed commons.

The politics of the relationship between control and stewardship needs analysing.

The Commons will be different in different places; diversity is essential and should be celebrated.

If you participated in the workshop please post your reflections on the day and thoughts about the way forward.

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