A Commons approach to urban collectives

How Area Based Collaborative Enterprises are a strategy for economic, social and ecologic vitality in a city

ABCitiEs descended on Athens to gather for the second interregional meeting. In a city that is recovering from a devastating crisis with the help of a tourism boom and the influx of international financial capital, we asked ourselves if collectives of entrepreneurs can play a role in maintaining the liveability and economic vitality of cities for its citizens. And what role is there for governments? We used the concept of urban commons to think of some answers, comparing the Athens cases with Plein ’40-’45 in Amsterdam.

In the margins of our interregional meeting in Athens of the Interreg ABCitiEs project we found some spare time to allow ourselves to give in to the touristic tendencies we can’t deny. We decided to pay a visit to the Acropolis. We were not the only ones. As one could expect, the archaeological site, the cradle of European civilisation and the birthplace of mathematics, theatre, medicine, democracy and what more, was completely overrun by visitors from all over the globe, busy taking photo’s of themselves with the Parthenon, Propylaia, the Erechtheion or the Temple of Nike as the background of choice. To make matters worse, it was International Museum Day.

Touristification: a blessing or a curse?

The phenomenon we were confronted with had frequently been the subject of our conversations during the days we spend together in Athens. The touristification of the city is one of the dominant background dynamics against which we considered the value and ambitions of collectives of entrepreneurs. In the last two years, so we are told, a rapid increase in the amount of visitors from abroad has emerged as both the lifeline and potential deathblow for a city that has hardly recovered from the consequences of a cruel crisis.

Tourism is the sparse source of optimism for an economic resurrection. The spendings of the city-hopping adventurers are not only opening up all kinds of opportunities for businesses and creating new jobs, albeit low-paid ones, it is also reviving the value of property and real estate. At the same time it is transforming the inner city in a centre for leisure and entertainment, where sites of historical and cultural conservation and learning are changed into human ant-hills and selfie sticks magnets, where housing is replaced by short stay apartments that thrive on the widespread popularity and appeal of AirBnB, and where quotidian shops are substituted by bars, restaurants and gift shops, not seldom owned and run by international companies. While residents are estranged of their habitat international companies and wealthy individuals are rapidly buying up land and real estate, already reserving the largest chunk of the economic gain for foreign investors and depriving local actors of the resources that are the fundamental building bricks of sustainable prosperity. In the distance a city abandoned by its citizens and parasitising the local economy for global profit is revealing itself, terrifyingly resembling Saskia Sassen’s expulsions. [1]

The role of collectives

Are then Area Based Collaborative Enterprises (ABCE’s) an adequate answer to the destructive side effects of the global financial economy? At Aiolou Street we discussed this question with Dimitris Markantonis, entrepreneur and initiator of a collective in development. The street, an area in fact, is at the frontier of the touristification, marked by the gradually increasing share of bars and restaurants in the streetscape. Shopkeepers and other entrepreneurs in the area form a network Dimitris describes as “a family”.[2] Historically they have clustered together in the area as collections of branches, one street offering predominantly sanitary ware shops, another haberdasheries and the third specialised as a street for cooking utensils. Shops cater both individual consumers and other companies as a whole sale. Coagulating in specific streets did not only play a role in attracting business as a marketing strategy, it also resulted in light forms of collaboration and mutual support, as entrepreneurs recognize an interdependency and grow familial relationships. But as businesses, and the area at large, are now under pressure, the question is if this network is strong enough to develop collective resilience and sustainability.

Why are these businesses threatened? In this regard there is a fine line between the sound functioning of the logic of the market and the intrusive and exploitative excrescences of a gentrifying global economy. One might argue that the shops and their offer concerned are out-dated and their evanescence is a sign of a valid economic evolution. On the other hand, how fair and responsible is it to give free reign to competition that is not only too big to battle, but also hardly has an interest nor stake in fostering the liveability and economic vitality of the area? In his presentation ABCitiEs partner and director of the Institute of Place Management Steve Millington reformulated this dilemma as the challenge for any city to move from an economy that exploits the local to profit the external, to one that is local and contributes to the welfare and prosperity of the local. A complex challenge, as matters are not black and white. I argue that we need to find a balance between offering space to external capital to flow in and building a local resilience and capability to spur local liveability and vitality. Preserving and retaining resources appears to be crucial in this regard. Collectives, in many cases including or supported by (local) authorities, might well offer plausible strategies to this goal. In the end, the logic of the market develops within the boundaries of the law and policy, and is thus up for political debate. ABCE’s can very well be part of that debate and steer it in a particular direction.

Understanding collectives as urban commons

Collectives such as at Aiolou Street can be explained in terms of urban commons. Dimitris and his colleagues seek to maintain and exploit, in his words, the (business) opportunities of the area. These opportunities, the fertile ground for local businesses, is the common resource the community of stakeholders aims to manage and preserve. The complexity of this ambition is to be found in the above-mentioned interference of different tendencies and interests, such as the important impact of touristification and the influx of financial capital  on the revival of the Athenian economy at large. Answers to address such complex situations are to be developed in the practice of dialogue and collaboration between the entrepreneurs, municipality and other stakeholders, but perceiving it as an urban commons assists in getting the right questions on the table:

  • who are to be viewed as the community of stakeholders and how are they related;
  • what is the shared resource, which functions does it have for the different stakeholders and what kind of qualities do they desire;
  • what policies, institutions and other (market) forces have which kind of effects on the development of the shared resource?

Starting from these kinds of questions we can imagine a more profound and informed debate to emerge on the future of the area. It is the point of departure for developing shared ideas, views and ambitions. It also provides an overview of the interests at stake, helpful for the municipality to formulate their political position and ambition (which agenda to follow?), and to specify the role or relation they want to have in or with the collective.

Building resilient self-organisations together

Aiolou Market is not a unique case. The bigger context of the issues they are dealing with are recognized amongst the partners of the ABCitiEs project. In the Plein ’40-’45 case in Amsterdam the street market is facing the long term challenge to deal with the effects of gentrification in the area and the broader economic strategy for street trade of the municipality. While the street market is turning to better self-organisation to improve its functioning by developing facilities such as a waste recycling system and tackling the problem of litter, the stallholders need to take into account that this self-organisation is deemed to fail if it does not address larger trends in consumer preferences by slowly changing bits and pieces of the character of the market. Not catering to the changing needs of the surrounding population could be an economic threat to the market, but moreover it diminishes the approval and legitimacy of its presence in public space, as it rather becomes a source of annoyance and nuisance.

Moreover, as the economic viability of street markets in general is decreasing, the municipality is developing a top down policy to safeguard their existence on the long term. This policy might very well include measures like cutting back the amount of days a market can be open. For stallholders though, this appears to be more of a threat than a solution. They also argue that the municipality is basing its ideas on general figures rather than on a specific and detailed analysis per market. But if they want to have constructive influence on these kinds of policies the market needs to set up the self-organisation in such a way that it can be the vehicle for collaboration with the municipality and be a co-designing partner.

The municipality recognizes the important function a market has for an area and a society, but is facing a dilemma regarding its responsibilities to other stakeholders. Therefore it needs to find a balance between the different interests. A very practical example of this dilemma is free parking. While free parking is one of the unique selling points for the market, it is believed that introducing taxation would solve issues like shortage of parking space and nuisance of an abundance of visitors. The dilemma becomes even more complex when the presence of markets is considered in relation to (when it interferes with) the value development of real estate or long term planning developments, especially in cities where tourism and international financial capital play such a big role, as is also the case in Amsterdam. Again, which agenda to follow?

Urban commons as a model for collaborative governance

The point here is that approaching cases like Aiolou Street or the market on Plein ’40-’45 as an urban commons does not only entail the collective management of what is considered as the shared resource by the direct users, but almost by definition means including governmental authorities and possibly other (indirect) stakeholders that represent different kinds of interests. Urban commons thus, is the vehicle to design the collaborative governance of such places with the help of the particular vocabulary of shared resources, communities of stakeholders and self-organisation (collective action), taking into consideration, and this point can’t be stressed enough, the broader context, interests and actions of institutions, companies and markets, physical an ecological surroundings and society at large.

Obstacles for collaboration: conflict

Touristification and the influx of international capital, and contextual circumstances in general, are not the only obstacles managing the city as an urban commons. There are in fact numerous. Those who ever tried to bring about collaboration know that maybe the biggest hurdles are to be found within the community itself. One of these obstacles, and probably the most obvious of all, is conflict. Conflicts come in all shapes and sizes. At Kipseli Market in Athens we have seen with our own eyes how it stands in the way of collaboration, even between people who have the most admirable and altruistic intentions. The former covered municipal market is redeveloped in recent years by the municipality and is now managed by Impact Hub Athens as a market for social entrepreneurship. The building hosts companies that refurbish old computers and donate them to schools, sell organic products of local farmers on a non-profit base, or offer free training and courses for refugees.

The neighbourhood however has a negative image of the new users of the market. People see them as intruders funded by the EU (the same EU that is held responsible for the recent devastating crisis), whom are hard to get in contact with and form a closed community with exclusive activities. Meanwhile the Kipseli crew argues that they did everything they could to connect to the neighbourhood and be as inclusive as possible, but their invitations are structurally rejected and their members receive a lot of disrespect. Witnessing the discussion between the two camps that took place while were there, the truth appeared to be more nuanced to us. Above all, what became clear is that unresolved conflicts of the past, starting with the assignment to Impact Hub of the building itself, continuing with, for example, events behind closed doors, play a continuous disruptive factor for actions in the present. And although they might agree at some point to leave it all behind and start new collaborative projects together, it remains that suppurating wound, slumbering in the background, ready to come the surface at any given time to dash all good intentions and brilliant ideas.

Again this phenomenon resonated strongly in the group and called for associations with the different cases in the participating cities, including our case of Plein ’40-’45. There a history of misconduct, undelivered promises and corruption even forms the scar that is a continuous reminder of the distrust between the different parties. And conflict is also more subtle. By sticking to a traditional way of working, where consultation and participation are the legitimising supplement for a top down process of policy making behind closed doors with unclear agendas, the municipality keeps the distance between themselves and the entrepreneurs in place and is de facto feeding the mutual distrust. Likewise, the unorganised character of the market as a collective and the somewhat churlish and reactionary manners of the average stallholder is also not contributing to building a constructive and cooperative relationship.

Working with/on the community

What is worth naming here is that the concept of urban commons directs us to the necessity to address issues within the community of stakeholders that are the obstacles for fruitful collaboration, and to do that in a thorough way. After all, as urban commons is the collaborative management of shared resources by the community of stakeholders, tackling anything that stands in the way of that collaboration is crucial. Interpersonal relationships, but also the competences and capacities within a community, are thus the backbone of urban commons, which need to be build, fostered and cared for.

In this respect, cases like Kipseli Market and Plein ’40-’45 could profit a lot from taking the time to deal with the conflicts of the past. Methods such as developed by the Public Mediation Program of the University of Amsterdam can be useful. Briefly, the method focuses on creating mutual understanding of what the conflict is and where it originates. Through research and moderated group sessions it establishes a jointly constructed time line that encapsulates all the events that are part of the coming into being of the here and now. These events are told and commented on from the different perspectives of each actor. In the group sessions participants are asked to elucidate their side of the story, but restrained from reacting on, and altering, other participant’s versions. Forced to listen to the perspectives of different actors on the same event it creates a more nuanced insight and understanding of what the conflict is about and how it evolved. Quite often it is found that the origin is trivial and the conflict is the result of accumulating misunderstandings. Public mediation is a method that helps to unravel this complex jumble and normalize relations. Thereby it constructs a new fundament to start building on relationships of trust.

Model for Collaborative Governance Arrangement for the Urban Commons

In more general terms, the urban commons approach is all about identifying where the community is curbed in collaboration and creating interventions to address the causes, just as it is about identifying obstacles in the environment, such as the institutional context, the forces of surrounding or overarching markets or the limitations of the physical and ecological world. As part of the ABCitiEs team and the RaakPro Toekomstbestendig Evenwicht (Future proof balance) project the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences is developing a model to bring this idea into practice and works on building experience and knowhow through the experiments we contribute to. Stay tuned for more information about the model and the experiments.

[1] Saskia Sassen, Expulsions : Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, 2014.

[2] We were explained that in Greece relationship definitions such as collectives are somewhat problematic. To put it exaggerated, the Greek see themselves associated with their family and others outside the family are distrusted. This explains why Dimitris spoke of a family when describing the network in the area, and one might interpret these relations thus to be strong and valued.