Narratives of Inclusion: Can Urban Commons Help us Live Together?

Image From The Urban Age “Shaping Cities” conference (July 14-15) hosted by La Biennale di Venezia

Cities are paradoxical spaces. On one hand, it is commonly known that, for instance, migration has been one of the most effective ways to increase the standard of living. In theory, when coming to the big cities, people are offered a surplus of opportunities to work, get educated, create a family and enjoy the lives they want. Therefore, the rush to settle down in cities, particularly in emerging economies, has been sparked by the image of a better life, full of diverse opportunities and, hence, as the economies have concentrated in the cities, so have the people. On the other hand, it is not a secret that the cities of today are extremely unequal places having a major part of their population, usually characterised by the poor and uneducated, excluded from the above-mentioned image. Disturbingly, exclusion has not only been relevant to the new-comers, but also to the residents who have lived in the urban centres for generations, and this is linked to the process of gentrification.

Thus, who owns the city? – a question addressed by S. Sassen, a Dutch-American sociologist – is very relevant today. Due to the growing foreign investment the major part of cites, in particular the central infrastructure, is now owned by foreign large corporations or shell companies [see more about this topic here]. This creates a  kind of meta-reality, because it is an invisible project. Nobody knows that some of the buildings are foreign owned, yet cities slowly become privatised entities, closed from the general public. Additionally, this contributes to the paradoxical lost of urbanity within the cities, because despite the fact that cities are becoming more and more dense, they are becoming less urban. Today “rather than a having spaces for including people from many diverse backgrounds and cultures, our global cities are expelling people and diversity.” – stress S. Sassen. Unsurprisingly, as the diverse public spaces are disappearing and the exclusion based on the socio-economic considerations, frequently tied to the racial or religious minority groups, is increasing, this has a direct contribution to the fragmentation of our societies and often results in an increase in social tensions and criminality. This fact has been addressed also by Suketu Mehta, an Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University, a writer and a winner of multiple awards in literature. Professor Metha has focused on the universal topic of exclusion and noted that “[t]o build a great city, a just city, we have to look at who’s included and who’s excluded. Then we should follow three principles: don’t exclude anybody from the law. Don’t exclude anybody from the conversation. And don’t exclude anybody from the celebration” of a city [a full article can be found here, or a discussion on the same topic between Suketu Mehta and Richard Sennett is available here].

The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) calculates that between 2015 and 2025, the world’s urban population will grow by 65 million people a year, or almost 179,000 every day [see more about this here]. Therefore, already having more than a half of the world’s population living in the urban settlements, the topics on inclusion and exclusion are extremely relevant while addressing planning, urban commons and governance – the future our cities. Having stressed the fact that cities are being sold off, this constitutes a great challenge for urban planners to secure the ability for everyone to take ownership of their city and ensure the true urban experience.This is the reason why in the annual Urban Age “Shaping Cities” conference, which is jointly organised by the LSE Cities at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft in a partnership with United Nations Habitat III, scholars and practitioners, despite their respective expertise, implicitly or explicitly, yet continuously reflect upon the issues on exclusion in the cities – how to manage it today and reduce it in the future.

“The cities everyone wants to live in should be clean and safe, possess efficient public services, be supported by a dynamic economy, provide cultural stimulation, and also do their best to heal society’s divisions of race, class, and ethnicity” –stressed Richard Sennett, a Centennial Professor of Sociology at the LSE and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University, while addressing the open system of cities in “Shaping Cities” conference [find original essay here]. Although, having addressed the paradoxical nature of the cities this is not necessarily the reality.

Cities are enormously expanding as well as they are full of religious, cultural, ethnic diversities whereby individuals belong to different communities at the same time. However, who actually shapes the life of our cities? Is it the voice of the diverse society, or the absence of this voice? Having addressed the urban diversity, S. Sassen identifies a city as a mixity of complexity and incompleteness, which has the capacity to thrive for a very long life [see her talk on this at this year’s “Shaping Cities” conference here]. However, stressing the above-mentioned foreign investment threat, cities are losing their dynamic cityness and are even de-urbanised, which contributes to the completeness of the cities. This is caused by the ownership and the construction of new glass boxes and predictable commercial spaces or isolated enclaves for homogeneous uses and users that prevents urban dynamism from even coming into existence.

Therefore, having in mind the social dynamics and diverse currents of our cities, it is very important to understand the social dimensions and ramifications as well as implications of urban planning and of certain governance policies to the society. And this is what Suketu Mehta means by not being excluded from the conversationthe conversation around urbanism. It is crucially important for urban planners and society to share the same language. Planners therefore should be public intellectuals, because “without political will, all our grand city plans will remain on the drawing board. And political will can only be generated if we get the public informed and excited about planning. The public is ready, because they’re already excited to be in the city”– stresses Mehta.

Coming back to S. Sassen’s definitions of  the city, she additionally stresses that even if infrastructural density “for someone is enough to have a city, there is more, because the large cities especially are one of the few places where those without power get to make a history, a culture, a neighborhood economy”. Cities, according to the sociologist, “are also today’s frontier zone where powerless and power encounter each other”. This goes together with the considerations by  Jane Jacobs, (1916-2006) a famous urban writer and activist who tried to understand what results when places become both dense and diverse, as in packed streets or squares, their functions both public and private. She stressed that out of such conditions comes the unexpected encounter, the chance of discovery and of the innovationOut of this encounter between, for instance, low wage workers and the wealthy, comes learning as well as positionality.

Thus, all the above-mentioned scholars could  agree that city needs common spaces where the real life can take place: where local economies can be made and where local cultures can thrive, because this phenomenon does not happen in the large private and complex corporate setups. This comes hand in hand with S. Mehta’s statement that no one should be excluded from the celebration and, I would add, the celebration of the cityness – city’s diversity, complexity and incompleteness. Here everyone is not excluded from being part of this celebration which indeed should be open, affordable and accessible. Additionally, this is closely tied to R. Sennett’s notion of the porous city, – a concept that he developed after visiting Nehru Place market in Delhi. “It’s a completely porous spot in the city, people of all castes, classes, races and religions coming and going, doing deals or gossiping about the small tech start-ups in the low offices which line the square; you can also worship at a small shrine if you’re so minded, or find a sari, or just lounge about drinking tea.” [see the article here]. According to the scholar, a porous city is based on the “opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasize true mixed use of public and private functions . . . they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change”. Porous spaces of the city are closely related to the urban commons.  Spaces produce a fertile medium to take the ownership of live in the unpredictable setting, experience urbanity by surprise, and provide social and economic possibilities for all citizens – this therefore represents a truly inclusive city.

Lastly, in the Shaping Cities conference Ed Glaeser, a professor of Economics at Harvard University said that “so much of what we find most precious about our successful cities are the common spaces, are the spaces that provide a form of equity, meaning that anyone can come and enjoy”. These spaces, according to the scholar, are open spaces welcoming everyone’s experience regardless of their socio-economic background – if they are able or not to afford a drink in a square where everybody gathers. The promotion of social inclusion hence is done by creating these democratic spaces – “a forum for . . .  strangers to interact”– as stresses R. Sennett. However, the creation and maintenance of these spaces is a long and experimental process, because communities to grow time and space are needed, since the bonds of an inclusive “community cannot be conjured in an instant, with a stroke of the planner’s pen”. This is fully reflected by the main principles of the City as a Commons, and it is not the alternative rather the only – inclusive and sustainable- way to help us live together. Thus, urban commons provide democratic “spaces of unplanned interactions that so often make one of the most precious things that happen in cities” – said Ed Glasear. Scholar adds that the promotion of open and shared spaces, which are the attempts of truly inclusive cities, should not be just merely defined, but actively defended, and this should incluively be done by reforming governance institutions, some of which could be purely public, some – purely private and some could occupy the space in between and this is the way to include everybody in the law, in the conversation, and in the celebration of cities and dynamic urbanity.



Le città sono spazi complessi e colmi di paradossi. Se da un lato per coloro che scelgono di migrare verso la città si aprono maggiori opportunità di successo economico e mobilità sociale, che possono condurre ad una migliore qualità della vita, dall’altro, come ben sappiamo, le città sono il luogo in cui diseguaglianza ed esclusione si manifestano in modo più accentuato. Diventa perciò sempre più importante interrogarsi, come molti studiosi stanno facendo, su quali soluzioni possano essere adottate per far si che l’ambiente urbano sia sempre di più uno spazio di incontro tra le diverse realtà sociali e culturali che coesistono nella città, in cui si generino comprensione e inclusione. In quest’ottica il ruolo dei beni comuni urbani come “spazio democratico di interazione pianificata” emerge come un elemento  fondamentale nell’immaginare un percorso verso uno sviluppo urbano sostenibile.