urban commons

Urban Commons

What are ‘Urban Commons’?

  1. Commons, then, as the historian Peter Linebaugh (2009) reminds us, involve “being-in-common”, or using resources in more or less shared, more or less non-subtractable ways through practices he calls “commoning”. Such collective practices are distinct in at least two ways: (1) they underwrite production and reproduction through the commons they depend upon and oversee, and (2) they typically do so through variable local arrangements that are more or less equalitarian, incorporative, and fair.
  2. Unlike property that is privately owned, the commons, for centuries, have referred to the wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone.In a broader sense, these would include clean air, the forests and other naturally available commons, but also the ones that are products of cooperative human creativity based on social principles of community building that sustain commons as well as ensuring equitable access to it. Rural grazing lands are probably one of the earliest and most widely known commons in the world.
  3. Highlighting the importance of the commons as a continuous process that defines social relations between people, historian Peter Linebaugh makes a powerful argument that the commons is ‘best understood as a verb’ rather than a noun denoting a particular resource. From this perspective, any investment in developing newer spaces of common ownership directly speaks to a 21st century sensibility of participative governance and participative citizens.
  4. In legal and technical terms, urban commons are owned by local bodies and thus are not unowned or pure commons. But in practice, they are open access and close to “pure commons”.
  5. Since anyone could appropriate the urban commons at any time without any restriction, it becomes difficult to finance them through private sector. 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.
  6.  Urban commons include so-called “public goods”: the air we breathe, public parks and spaces, public transportation, public sanitation systems, public schools, public waterways, and so forth. But they also include the less obvious: municipal garbage that provides livelihoods to waste-pickers; wetlands, waterbodies, and riverbeds that sustain fishing communities, washerwomen, and urban cultivators; streets as arteries of movement but also as places where people work, live, love, dream, and voice dissent; and local bazaars that are sites of commerce and cultural inven- tion.

What are the Functions of ‘Commons’?

  1. Urban commons can provide a key to sustainable living and wellbeing in cities, helping citizens forge new connections, rebuild social capital and reclaim their right to the city. Despite the undeniable importance of urban commons, commons research for the most part focuses on landscapes that are largely rural.
  2. The commons act as a nutritional buffer and safety net for migrants who flock to cities from distressed parts of the country by providing them with wild plants, greens and brushwood, places to bathe, defecate, wash clothes and protection from winter nights.
  3. The middle-class and wealthy residents of the city are no less dependent on the commons, though they may not recognise the extent of it. Lakes, parks, wetlands, rivers and even roadside trees play a role in cleaning the air, raising groundwater levels and maintaining people’s physical and mental well-being.
  4. Vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish, fuelwood, water and fodder provided by urban commons are important for both subsistence and livelihood appropriation by groups living around them. Livestock owners make use of water from lakes for washing and watering their animals. At the same time, vegetation growing along the lake’s banks and on the water surface are used as fodder. Wetlands surrounding lakes support cultivation of ragi (Eleusine coracana), various types of fodder grass, and paddy. In situations of drought and scarce resources, and when water levels in the Agara lake are low, women recall collecting Onagane soppu (Alternanthera sessilis), a local green. This was used both to supplement local diets as well as income through selling them. Fishing, once a traditional activity of the Bestharu community, is today tender based. It provides an important source of income to those dependent upon this resource. Water from the lake is integral in supporting the livelihoods of the dhobhi (washerfolk) community. In addition, mud and water from the lakes is used to manufacture bricks, another important livelihood based activity dependent on the urban commons.
  5. A number of citizen groups have begun to form associations to revive, restore and nurture urban commons.They provide a platform for the community to collaborate on collective efforts towards management.

What are the Threats to Urban Commons?

1.The urban policies in many countries are pushing for this ‘commoning’ to be scaled up, where even the last person is able to rightfully participate in tackling larger questions of housing, urban ecology, water, transport and other important issues through a process of bottom-up democratisation of governance.

Yet, across cities the commons seem to be the most dispensable of spaces. 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.

2.While the ecological consequences of the damage (which include floods, droughts and heat waves) are widely discussed, the social outcomes receive less attention. Commons represent those rare spaces in increasingly segregated cities where the rich and the poor can still meet, children of all classes play together and collaborations for conservation can occur.

3.However, smart city plans and restoration projects take an approach that de-commonises the commons by evicting people who depend on them most. Beach sides, river fronts, lakes and parks become gated spaces, accessible only to those who can pay, and available only for recreational use, often coupled with “entertainment” in the form of flashing lights, loud music and food courts that evict wildlife. Our cities can hold out any promise of a better future only if the commons play a central role in urban planning.

4. 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.

5.Overburdened drainage, frenzied and unregulated construction, no regard to the natural topography and hydro-geomorphology all make urban floods a man-made disaster

With rapid urban expansion, builders have been constructing increasingly on reclaimed wetlands, flood plains and low lands of the city as these areas have a cheaper land rate. What is surprising, though, is that not just private builders, the government too, is building over such vulnerable areas.

Overlooking environmental regulations in mega-projects is fairly common in the country. Back in the 2000’s, Delhi’s Akshardham Temple Complex and Commonwealth Games Village (CWG) were built right on the Yamuna’s floodplain.

The secondary runway of Chennai International Airport was also built right over the Adyar river. Most of the airport was constructed on the riverine floodplains, leading to massive flooding during the 2015 Chennai floods.

The case of Bengaluru:

Rapid urbanization has led to large-scale degradation and transformation of several commons, impacting the resilience of traditional and vulnerable users. Gunda thopes (hereafter ‘thopes’) are wooded groves that constitute important yet neglected peri-urban commons of Bengaluru city in southern India. Traditionally used and managed by local communities, these thopes as urban commons provided a range of ecosystem services. Thopes supported traditional livelihoods and subsistence use by local communities, urban poor and migrants and were central to the cultural lives of local residents. Urbanization has resulted in changes to the status, use, management and perceptions of thopes with significant degradation in the last three decades contributing to declining ecosystem services.Historically an agrarian landscape, Bengaluru has transformed drastically in the intervening years, being variously called a ‘garden city’ and India’s ‘Silicon Valley’. Most of the city’s growth has been uncharted, unplanned, and with very minimal attention paid to urban nature and the ecosystem services it provides. At the same time, the city has expanded rapidly by engulfing peri-urban areas surrounding it – areas that even today retain agrarian lifestyles, heavily dependent upon urban ecosystem services. However, unplanned urbanization leading to the acquiring, conversion, encroachment and pollution of many of these urban commons have transformed landscapes, drastically impacting the ecosystem services that may be derived from them.


  • Some notable models 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 moot question is how to replicate and scale up such “islands of excellence”. 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. .
  • Water sensitive urban design and planning techniques — especially in the context of implementation — are of utmost importance. These methods take into consideration the topography, types of surfaces (pervious or impervious), natural drainage and leave very less impact on the environment. Vulnerability analyses and risk assessments should form part and parcel of city master plans.
  • In a changing climate, our proposed infrastructure (especially storm water drainage) has to be built considering the new ‘normals’. Tools such as predictive precipitation modelling can help do that and are also able to link it with the adaptive capacity of urban land use.
  • EIAs and enforcement will remain vital to ensure that fragile wetlands and floodplains are not concretised.
  • Disabling spawning of squatter settlements in sensitive zones by providing adequate affordable housing will reduce number of persons vulnerable to changing climate. All this means urban local bodies will continue to have a central role to play in cities’ battle with extreme weather events such as flooding and their overall resilience.

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