Commons were an exciting possibility for the city but come with challenges of definition and execution. We offered the following questions as provocations that should be taken into consideration when developing your design:
What is the role of design?
By setting a challenge to design the urban commons, we are partly looking to explore the role that designers could have in enabling communities to work together, or to work as part of communities themselves. How much of the design should be concerned with the space itself and how much should it be the organisational structure that allows commoning to take place? How does commoning expand the definition of what design is, and where design happens?
Who is it for?
If spaces are owned or legislated by the state on behalf of their constituents then they are termed ‘public’, but this state ownership often comes with its own limitations on access and usage. For example, the rural right to roam guarantees access for walking on private land but forbids camping, lighting fires or holding festivals, and urban parks and streetscapes are even more rigidly controlled. Common, therefore, is something different to public and could arguably mean that alliances of commoners have direct ownership of space or at least rights to decide the way it should be used. However, the common is also, by definition, exclusionary. Can a common be open to everyone and still retain these rights? Or might there need to be limitations on who can become a ‘commoner’ with right to benefit from a particular common space.
Where is it based?
Definitions of what can be considered commons range from specific areas of land in a city, like community gardens, co-housing or infrastructure, to cultural goods like language or forms of art, to ecological matter like air and water, to digital platforms. Each of these commons operates at a very different scale, from the hyper-local nostalgia of the village common, to the metropolitan scale of transport infrastructure, to the global flows of music or air currents. How does the scale at which commoning occur change its relationship to forms of social organisation and the question of value? Does the idea of the commons pose challenges to our traditional conceptions of administrative boundaries like borough, town, city, region and nation?
Who does it benefit?
Commoning and the creation of common spaces both have the potential to create all sorts of value: cultural vitality, an animated public realm, aesthetically improved places and financially valuable resources like food, energy and housing. Commons throughout history though have always been threatened with enclosure as private interests attempt to capitalise upon the value they produce. Local authorities and property developers for example may attempt to use the existence of commons to market places as commodities, which in turns threatens the very existence of commons. Perhaps this is inevitable and the social process of commoning can adapt and relocate, or perhaps there are specific ways this commodification can be resisted.
What are resources?
Commoning is the collective production and management of resources for and by their users. But what is an urban resource? Some may appear to be finite, such as space and water. Others may actually benefit from being used up to a point, such as libraries and cultural institutions. Others still may only become a resource when they are framed as such by a certain kind of user, such as waste. Finally, some, such as the intangible urban “atmosphere” that animates public life in the city, are produced by consumption of the city and come into being with urban density. How does your design contribute to new or existing urban resources through the creation of ways to do commoning?