Social practices of "commoning" as a way towards a more sustainable future

During her visit to Berlin, ODRAZ's external associate Iva Paska visited the exhibition "Atlas of Commoning: Places of Collective Production", organized by the IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) in cooperation with the ARCH +, which is currently open in "Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien". The exhibition and publication project address so-called practices of "commoning" - creation and participatory management of commons, displaying innovative examples from all over the world. Which practices are these and how are they a way towards a more sustainable social future?

Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen tackles current social affairs and organizes corresponding exhibitions around the world. One of these current topics is accelerated urbanization, happening parallel with the unhindered privatization and commercialization of public spaces. The exhibition "Atlas of Commoning: Places of Collective Production" questions these models of development and tries to find alternative ways of collective creation and management of commons.

The concepts of the "community" and "sharing" are also questioned in the context of the current development of "sharing" platforms of mostly commercial characters, such as Facebook or Airbnb. Through the critical examination of such phenomena which offer platform-based capitalism under the disguise of commons, while simultaneously excluding certain social groups, we are warned that the logic of capitalistic development puts an emphasis on an individual and not on the community. Implications of this kind of development can be found in the decline of social cohesion and isolation.

The exhibition thus questions the place of the community in contemporary social relations, its expression and its relation towards common or commonly created goods - commons - as well as alternative possibilities of communal organization. To which extent are citizens included in the creation of the community in which they are living? Exhibited examples function as best practices which point to alternative forms of community-organizing, leading to more inclusive and sustainable communities.

It is pointed out that we are, as human beings, simultaneously individuals and community members; we are inter-connected. But this social interconnectedness seems to be lacking in physical expression and social practices that extend beyond the logic of capitalism.  It is called for places which offer the possibility of common creation and the sense of shared responsibility - places where the community becomes lived reality, the authors of the exhibition claim.

Thus the idea of the exhibition and the project publication is to reclaim and redefine public and emancipatory space of sharing. The emphasis here is on urban collective goods, which means creation and management (material or immaterial) of collective resources and spaces, which at the same time forms a basis of democratic participation. These social practices call for a new word - "commoning" in the English language, "gemeinschaffen" in German, an active verb describing processes. Starting position is, namely, that commoning is not just about sharing material or natural resources, but also about continuous finding of new social practices which redefine relations of community towards commons.

Both exhibition and project publication present best practices examples, accompanied by the attempt to answer questions posed by the authors: "How can cities be organized to meet their residents' needs? How can individual voices be heard, and how can we devise a praxis of urban living that accommodates a plurality of voices, a communal praxis of commoning? Which processes and practices of development can we imagine that would be both collective and pluralistic? How can cities be and remain places of commoning?

Commoning thus describes a set of processes around (re)production of material and immaterial common goods; a search for alternative and self-determined existence beyond the market and the state. It is already evident from the different modes of functioning of exhibited practices that the concept of commoning is far from unequivocal and that it is, as authors call it, "a place of struggle". Three main axes of tension are detected, presenting a challenge in this context: ownership-access, production-reproduction, and right-solidarity.



In regards to challenges related to ownership and access, it is emphasized by the authors that the contemporary society is confronted with the opposition between easy accessibility of services and goods, while at the same time a tradition of permanent ownership is very much present. The potential for their co-existence is there, but the logic of platform-capitalism remains the of the limited access. Further, when it comes to sharing of public urban spaces the question arises if and to which extent institutions are necessary for their regulation and the extent to which community can organize itself without some kind of institutional regulation.

SPREEFELD -  BERLIN, GERMANY; Communal housing

Spreefeld Berlin is a project of communal housing at the estuary of the river Spree in the inner city of Berlin, between Mitte and Kreuzberg. The idea of the architects was to create socially just and economically stable urban block, while at the same time taking into account the environmental responsibility. Buildings represent an example of participatory housing and urban block design, where future residents co-create places in which they will live together with the architects.

Spreefeld Berlin

The element of the social justice was accomplished by making it possible for future residents to carry out the construction work themselves, in exchange for the required equity capital. In this way, the access was granted also to those with lesser amounts of capital. The element of economic stability was accomplished by the foundation of a co-op of residents with shared ownership, which prevents the rise of the prices. The responsibility towards the environment is ensured through the production of the renewable energy. 

The project also explores rigid boundaries between the private and the public - the ground floors are left open and are envisioned as spaces of sharing open to residents of the neighbourhood. Architects have intentionally left these spaces unfinished in order for the residents to complete them, according to their own needs and desires. One of the spaces has become the multifunctional event space, the other a wood workshop, while the third has become the space for art and culture. The emphasis of this kind of housing organization is on the increase of communal spaces, so there are common laundry rooms, fitness facilities, guest rooms and rooftop terraces. Buildings are designed so that they are open towards the residents, but also the public and the river-bank.


The process of construction planning in this way becomes a practice of commoning.

PRINZESSINENGARTEN - BERLIN, GERMANY; Urban gardening, communal place and the place for skills exchange

The "The Nomadic Green" initiative has turned the abandoned area in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin into Prinzessinengarten - an urban garden and place of inclusion into more sustainable community life, together with neighbours, activists, and volunteers. The place also serves as the point of sharing know-how and a platform for exploration of alternative socio-ecological visions of the city. Within the garden in 2015. a "Neighbourhood Academy" was established, functioning as a self-organizing platform for sharing of skills related to commoning.

Further, the architectural articulation of the practice of commoning was built collaboratively by the architecture students, carpentry apprentices and other volunteers - called " Arbor" (German "Laube) - an open-wooden structure accommodating Academy's program, as well as other programs, whether organized such as musical events, whether the more spontaneous ones.

It is on many levels, the authors emphasize, that this project resonates with the concept of ecosophy of Felix Guattari, based on the three interacting and interdependent ecologies of mental, social and material environments. It is Guattari's view that only modifications to the social and material environments can lead to changes in mentalities. In the same manner, the garden and the Arbor is not a mean to itself, but rather a mean to nurture an alternative ecology of the mind - an opening of the possibility of imagining alternative economic and social ways of community organization.


But the Arbor is also confronting aforementioned challenges as some other practices of commoning - the need to find a balance between expected institutionalization and an attempt in keeping open and inclusive nature of the current version of Prinzessinengarten. These kinds of commoning practices are often confronted with a challenge of finding a balance between the autonomy necessary for self-organization and the simultaneous attainment of sustainability without an institutional element.

LUCHTSINGEL - ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS; Crowdfunding of the public infrastructure

Crowdfunding has recently established itself as a new method for "bottom-up" financing of development. Good practices example and a unique example of this kind in the world is the construction of the new pedestrian bridge Luchtsingel Rotterdam, which has newly connected a neglected city neigbhourhood with the center of the city.

The city neighbourhood around the former Hopflein railway station began to deteriorate at the beginning of the 21st century. Faced with lack of the will of public administration to tackle this issue, local architect initiative ZUS initiated the first project in the world of this kind, in which public infrastructure was to be financed by crowdfunding. The idea was to build a bridge which will reconnect the neighbourhood with surrounding urban areas, thus regaining the livelihood lost in recent decades.

The project was supported by citizens through crowdfunding of wooden slats, at 25 euros each. In return, their names, wishes, and messages to the city were carved into the guardrail. The Luchtsingel bridge reconnected pedestrian lines between the neighbourhoods and also brought renewed interest for this part of town, while simultaneously becoming the powerful symbol of the possibilities of a participatory urban design, as claimed by the authors.

Luchtsingel Rotterdam

Luchtsingel bridge is based on the ZUS's idea of "permanent temporality", which represents a new approach to city building. Existing urban forms and developmental character of the city are taken as a starting point, after which the city is transformed step-by-step, allowing for a loopback within the design process and adding of new layers on already existing ones.


In times in which municipal budgets are decreasing, this model of planning and financing emerges as a possible alternative, the authors say. But at the same time, they warn that this model cannot replace public long-term urban planning and financing in its entirety.



The field of production and reproduction is the second area detected by the authors as a challenge related to commoning. First and foremost, this area tackles the breaking and separation of established modernist dichotomies - public-private as well as living-working. The authors explore alternatives mode of living to the prevailing paradigm of the twentieth century, built upon the foundations of gender politics and domestic labor. (Unpaid) domestic labor still nowadays presents a hidden form of productive labor. Authors warn that the strategies of making labor invisible are the ways in which capitalism externalizes the hidden costs of production. In the age of global capitalism it becomes even more hidden since the costs of production of a certain product can literally take place on the other side of the world - and far from our sight which, conveniently, makes us even less responsible.

Therefore, advocates of commoning are simultanously advocating for a broader definition of the economy, in which all kinds of labor - paid and unpaid - are recognized as having value. In the concrete practical examples, the tendency is towards the elimination of the sharp boundary between private and public and towards the opening of the new spaces for collaborative living, as well as collectivization of housework in the context of common spaces, residential blocks or city neighbourhoods.

KALKBREITE, ZÜRICH - SWITZERLAND; New forms of communal living

The co-op Kalkbreite in Zürichu presents a new form of communal living in which sustainability is accomplished through partial sharing of activities and spaces which are individualized in traditional forms of housing of the twentieth century. In accordance with this, living spaces are limited to 32,6 m2 per resident, while the spaces for dining and kitchen (with a professional chef), as well as terraces, are shared. Sustainability is also achieved by sharing of cars between the residents and limited energy consumption per individual resident within the building - to 2000 watts daily, which is two-thirds of a typical energy consumption in Western Europe. As compensation, residents have access to a launderette, sauna, workshop, co-working spaces, meeting rooms and guest rooms, so that the individual space can be expanded when needed.

Members of the co-op get their right to lease the apartment in the building once it is emptied. In order for the communal living not to turn to gated community, the Kalkbreite co-op ensures apartments at affordable prices, as well as subsidies, financed from the street-level retail units, as well as solidarity fonds. The co-op also strives towards economic, cultural and ethnic diversity of the residents, relfecting social reality of Zürich.

Kalkbreite Zurich

Innovative typologies of housing such as this one exceed conventional concepts of private and public space and contribute to sustainability of community, both in the narrow and the wider sense.

PLANBUDE, HAMBURG - GERMANY; Participatory construction process

When the complex of buildings built in the 1960s in St. Pauli neighbourhood in Hamburg was to be demolished in 2009., local residents came together and advocated for the renovation instead. With this aim, protests were organized and a platform was created - a platform which did not succeed in their aim entirely, but which ultimately succeeded in convincing of politicians and investors to make the creation of new buildings a participatory process and to include needs and desires of the local community in it.

With that objective, interdisciplinary collective PlanBude was formed. The collective lead open participatory process of "bottom-up planning", but not by using standard forms of encouragement to participation. Instead, the concept of "tactical furniture" was invented in order to "transfer" the problem directly to the residents. Two containers were placed directly at the construction location and became planning offices where citizens would enter to give their propositions of the new building complex. Citizens were given creative tools to express their propositions - Lego models, clay, drawing materials.

PlanBude Hamburgf

The process was trying to find the answer to the question: what makes this neighbourhood so special that it should be reproduced in the building complex? Residents were even asked to express their vision of the city in 2020. Workshops and neighbourhood walks were also organized. At the end of this innovative participatory process, more than 2000 proposals were collected, which were then discussed at the city council meetings, as well as evaluated and condensed.

From this process a sort of the benchmark for translation of participatory process into the directives for urban planning, named "St. Pauli code". Further, in order to establish the dialogue and ensure the representation of the community's interests, conferences with investors and politicians were organized. Investor accepted "St. Pauli code" and it became a foundation for the architecture tender. In the end of this participatory process, everyone was satisfied with its results.

What one can learn from this is the very reason why the processes of planning should move in participatory direction - it is the residents of a certain neighbourhood who know it and understand the needs arising within it the best. So processes of participatory planning like this ensure embeddedment of such inherent knowledge into the planning process and dialogue with the public administration and investors.



The third contested area in the context of commoning is related to human rights, whereby these rights include also a right to housing and a right to the city. It is here that the authors of the exhibition detect the tension between the implementation of the law regulation from above and bottom-up creation of solidarity networks.Territoriality of the law, traditionally related to the notions of nation and sovereignty of the nation-state reaches its limits with the advancement of globalization. The authors ask how we can then re-envision truly effective global policies extending beyond the limits of the territory. How can "bottom-up" solidarity increase and strengthen universal rights and self-organization of the community?

KOTTI & CO - BERLIN, GERMANY: Re-claiming the neighbourhood

In order to resist the rising rents in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin in the year 2011, as well as advancing gentrification, local residents have organized in solidarity. The initiative named "Kotti &  Co" after the "Kottbusser Tor" station in Kreuzberg has from the local resident's initiative turned into a place of articulation of the communal interests and movement which advocates housing policy transformations in Berlin. It obtained its physical expression in the wooden house called Gekecondu, where local residents hold their meetings.


A gentrification issues are pressing issues in many contemporary touristic neighbourhoods and cities across the world, which is what Kreuzberg has become from the initially predominantly Turkish neighbourhood, instrumental in its revitalization. Within the logic of the tourism subordinated to the tourists and resulting in rising rents and prices, local residents find it increasingly difficult to afford and organize their lives in their own neighbourhood. This process can as of late with the increasing tourism be observed also in Zagreb and it remains to be seen which turn it will take. However, in the context of wider sustainability of the neighbourhoods and cities, as well as their cultural and historic identity, that the methods of sustainable tourism are conceived.

The "Kotti & Co" initiative advocates for restructuring of subsidies and steering of public housing policies in a more sustainable direction. Along these lines, and together with other initiatives, they have demanded a referendum to be organised in Berlin. They have also stopped the prices of rents of socual housing in Berlin from rising and accomplished the return of private buildings with social apartments to the ownership of the City. The example of self-organization of the Kreuzberg residents is one of the possibility of local community-organizing in order to react to gentrification issues and explore alternative forms of solutions.

In the end, it needs to be emphasized that the exhibition "An Atlas of Commoning: Orte der Gemeinschaffens" is a lot more than just a collection of best practice examples of commoning. It is an attempt at envisioning of new forms of future economic and social practices, leading us to question the ways in which we think about social reality and imagine alternative forms of social practices leading to a more sustainable future.



Project publication "An Atlas of Commoning: Places of collective production", ARCH + Journal for Architecture and Urbanism, ed. Gatti Mirko, Gruber Stefan, Kaldenhoff Max, aus dem Moore Elke, Ngo, Anh-Linh, Rüb Christiane, ARCH + Verlag GmbH; Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e.V. (ifa), 2018.

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