Building urban commons through action research

Explaining the research method we used for the Plein ’40-’45 case in Amsterdam

Co-creation session

Since late 2018 AUAS researchers of Urban Governance and Social Innovation are involved in the development of the Zero Waste Lab of the street market on Plein ’40-’45 in Amsterdam Nieuw West. The aim of the Zero Waste Lab is to establish better management of the market and the square, with the reducing of plastic packaging material and litter and the development of a circular waste management system. Our activities as researchers are targeted at supporting the involved stakeholders in their ambition to solve these challenges through cooperation, leading to the collective management that is urban commons. Because action research is an important ingredient of our approach and because we think that this method can contribute to the realization of the cooperation that is needed in cities today, we wrote down our experiences in a chapter for the book Seeing the City of Nanke Verloo and Luca Bertolini.

Unlike more conventional forms of research, action researchers actively participate in the practices they study. Participation not only results in a better and deeper understanding, but action researchers also aim to contribute to change. For instance, action researchers investigate situations where practices are stuck or search for the knowledge that is lacking amongst stakeholders. By directly sharing their results with the people they work with, they enrich these practices and further development. In the case of the Zero Waste Lab we, for example, analyzed the interpersonal relations between different stakeholders to find that there was a lack of collectivity amongst stallholders and that their relationship with the municipality was rather problematic or even conflictual. We, therefore, applied forms of community building and mediation.

Building a collective on the market

In particular action research attempts to contribute to fundamental and systemic change. This means that we have a special eye for the context in which specific problems occur. We investigate to what extent these issues are related to, for example, patterns of thought people have adopted, values people adhere to, the culture they have been brought up in, institutional structures and processes they are part of, or overarching provisions and regulation. We then team up with involved stakeholders to help them reflect on their own behavior and that of others. And we work on reflexivity, i.e. creating an understanding of how thoughts and behavior are shaped and oriented by this systemic context. The insights arrived at through reflexivity are then the starting point to explore the possibilities for systemic innovation and, possibly, realizing this transition step by step. In the case of the Zero Waste Lab we have found that, amongst other things, central policies are frustrating the process of self-organization, such as standardized levies for waste disposal. Possibilities to implement variable levies following the ‘polluter pays principle’ would allow local stakeholders to develop an own waste disposal system that stimulates reduction, but moreover, it highlights important questions concerning the relationship between a central government and local governance arrangements around places and practices in the city. The goal is to develop governance that allows local stakeholders to develop practices fitting the local context of users and other circumstances in a collaborative and constructive relationship with overarching institutions, for example through acknowledging the principle of equality, striving for inclusivity, and taking into account the conflicting interests of others and by coordinating logistic and organizational elements with other practices.

Visit of Professor Christian Iaione

Our action research method elaborates on the conclusion of Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione in ‘The City as a Commons’ that urban commons require collaborative governance. The method aims to develop and enhance such governance arrangements and is shored by a conceptual model that can be used to analyze and value practices in terms of collaborative governance used for the collective management of common resources by the community of stakeholders. Collaborative governance is a dynamic and ongoing process of interaction between different stakeholders to come to policy choices. Policy thereby becomes a fluid phenomenon, the flexibility and adaptivity of which suit the complexity and contingency of the urban reality. Precisely because action research is relating to the continuous development and change within the practices it investigates and because it holds an interactive and iterative working method, it is an outstanding method to be used for policy analysis within settings of collaborative governance. Thereby it is also a valuable instrument for researchers and practitioners who are committed to realizing urban commons.

The book chapter elaborates on the activities action researchers perform in their work and the attitudes and routines they need to adhere to. It also gives insight into the role and function of a conceptual model for action researchers and how systemic is strived after, illustrated by examples of the Zero Waste Lab case. Nanke Verloo’s and Luca Bertolini’s book Seeing the City offers a rich collection of innovative research methods that have been particularly developed for use with the urban context. Our research is part of the Future Proof Equilibrium project that is supported by SIA-RAAK. It is also part of the Interreg Europe ABCitiEs programma.