The word commons evokes the imagery of a rural landscape — a village with ponds and grazing lands surrounded by forests. Though commons are equally essential for cities, the fact remains almost ignored in urban policy and planning.

Thus, in the heart of Bengaluru, cows graze on the edges of lakes and community fishing is practiced in waste weirs; and in Mumbai, adivasis hunt and forage for food in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Agaris use coastal and creek-side land for salt panning.

Urban Commons represent spaces that involve collective appropriation and repurposing of public space and urban resources that are ‘open and spontaneous’ yet ‘structured’. These can also be historic and naturally occurring landscapes in cities, such as maidans, chowks, wetlands, beaches, and even streets.

“Commoning has to do with difference, not commonality, it should always be expanding those who can participate.”

Stavros Stavrides

Commons let it be rural or urban, are an integral part to conserve the ecosystem. But in the hoard of rapid urbanization and development, the commons are going invisible, especially the urban commons. Forests like Mumbai’s Aarey are threatened for infrastructure projects, wetlands in Thiruvananthapuram acquired for technoparks, and trees in South Delhi felled to build apartments. Urban Commons represent those rare spaces in increasingly segregated cities where diverse societies meet, children of all classes play together and collaborations for conservation can occur. Around the city of Bangalore, hundreds of lakes have been lost owing to urbanization and industrial pollution. These lakes were traditionally used by a number of communities for varying purposes such as agriculture, fishing, cattle bathing, drinking, and domestic uses.

Similarly, the acquisition of common land in the periphery of Gurgaon for the construction of Water Treatment Plant has deprived livestock dependent village communities. However, smart city plans and restoration projects take an approach that de-commonizes the commons by evicting people who depend on them the most.

Despite their importance, the transformation of commons following urbanization is poorly studied. Research has shown that between 1985 and 2005, scholarly literature on commons that provides a historical perspective has been very limited. This “poverty of history in commons” has had important consequences in contemporary policies that influence the governance of common pool resources.

Policy moves

Need to develop financing framework

Cooperative or community funding also becomes difficult as most urban commons do not have clearly defined, limited and stable pool of appropriators.

This is the reason, financing of the urban commons by the private sector or by communities is confined to development and maintenance of traffic islands, parks, stadiums, streets or footpaths, that too in a limited number.
So, urban commons are mainly dependent on governments, particularly local governments that are more often than not financially weak.

The result is inadequate or no financing of the urban commons. There is an urgent need to come out with clear-cut policies, regulations and financing frameworks or mechanisms for urban commons so that their development, maintenance and regulation can take place through investment by private and social sectors.

Common people should take lead

Traditionally, the commons were managed sustainably by communities whose culture and livelihoods were intrinsically linked with them. 

But over the years, any urban commons has been controlled and also undermined by the local bodies. This has resulted in the commercialization of land, encroachments, and over-exploitation of resources.

Many civil groups and citizen collectives have stepped forward to fill in this gap and sustain the ecosystem. Some initiatives include the initiative by The Nature Conservancy in Chennai to restore wetlands through scientific reclamation of lakes and catchment areas by involving local communities; civic engagement in lake management in Bengaluru through partnership with the authorities; and the movement for a “raahgiri” (car-free) day for use of roads by residents in Delhi.

The need of the hour is how to scale up such initiatives in other contexts across the country. The governance of urban commons should be integrated with the “right to the city” initiatives. Local governments should lead the way in setting up regulations, providing incentives, and mentoring start-ups by millennials. These measures may result in the transformation of the “tragedy of the commons” into a triumph.

Rethink the management

Mismanagement by bureaucracy and stakeholders’ apathy cost us our public spaces.

Traditionally, the commons were governed by customary rights of communities. For commoning to once again become mainstream, it would require new forms of collective governance, also referred to as multi-stakeholder governance, in which the community or public is not just a user but partner with the state authorities and other players, such as social innovators, knowledge institutions and civil society groups.

The commons must function outside of the capitalist market demand and be co-designed by communities and other stakeholders.

Here, the designer acts as a facilitator while the design provides a framework that enables communities to work together to produce and govern commons that are accessible, safe and of high quality.

Planners can play a role by identifying and allocating the commons as well as developing mechanisms to co-fund initiatives that revive the traditional commons and develop new urban commons.

Conclusion

Urbanization has emerged as a recent threat to these natural resources. There is a need to question the top-down models of urban expansion which have created marginalization and deprivation in rural and peri-urban spaces.

Our cities can hold out any promise of a better future only if the commons play a central role in urban planning.  Only after we acknowledge the rural-urban linkages, would new ways open to thinking about alternative modes of urbanization and making the process more equitable.    

To keep up with the changing political and economic aspirations of this young country and cultivate civic culture, our policies need to acknowledge and scale-up participatory governance and collective ownership. Reviving the urban commons involves integrating the concept of natural, secular as well as cultural spaces, with the everyday life and shared values of people.

PPIN Staff

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