The City And The Commons

Responding to Tim Hollo’s article Towards Ecological Democracy, Natalie Osborne explores the implications of these ideas for cities, arguing that urban commoning demands what will be, for many of us, a radical reimagining of land, boundaries, and notions of property and ownership that directly challenge capitalist modes of relations.

I’d like to start this piece by paying my respects to the Jagera and Turrbal Peoples of Meanjin/Brisbane on whose unceded land this piece was thought and written, and their elders past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations People.

I am a critical urban geographer, so in taking up Tim Hollo’s provocation about the commons I would like to think about its implications for cities. Cities are where most of us live and urbanisation is increasing globally; ergo, cities must be central to the commons Tim proposes. Practices of urban commoning require a dramatic (re)entangling of ourselves with each other, with place, and with the more-than-human, after centuries spent on individuation and atomisation. Urban commoning demands what will be, for many of us, a radical reimagining of land, boundaries, and notions of property and ownership that directly challenge capitalist modes of relations.

Imagining ways of living in cities that are not determined by capitalist relations is challenging. Such is the prevailing dominance of capitalism and its latest iteration, neoliberalism, that it may be “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (Fisher, 2009). Indeed, capitalism, intertwined as it is with colonialism and ecological destruction, has already eaten futures, ended worlds. As Tim rightly diagnoses in his essay, we have been atomised. What we have lost in losing our connections with each other and the more-than-human world is our capacity to imagine radical, speculative, care-full futures – we have lost our capacity to imagine different ways of relating to each other. In capitalist realism, it is easy to mistake the way things are for the way things must be.

This frustration of imagination can lead to a kind of existential cynicism. I’ve been an environmentalist and a feminist for longer than I have had those words in my vocabulary, and part of my interest in critical urban geography and spatial politics came from my own experiences of despair and hopelessness – many of the activists, environmentalists, community organisers I know struggle with “political depression” (Cvetkovich, 2012). This is not just about fear of failure or concerns over strategy, it is a genuine apocalyptic fear that, in Mark Fisher’s (2014) words, we are living through the “slow cancellation of the future”. We have lost, or perhaps my generation alongside many others have never had, a strong vision of a future beyond neoliberalism, inequity, ecological disaster. We lack an imaginary for it, a narrative, a story.

Of course, it is no accident that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It is a trick, a sleight of the invisible hand that knows the first step to supplanting the current order is to imagine the possibility of other possibilities. Cognisant of this, Donna Haraway (2016) recommends us to practices of “speculative fabulation”; to finding new stories, new narratives to think with, to build worlds with. Tim’s essay and invocation of the commons, I think, makes for a good story to think with.

To think of the cities as a commons, it helps to consider that cities are already a collective project – something we are all producing and reproducing through our everyday practices, mobilities, and modes of inhabitance. Marxist geographer David Harvey (2012) posits, what if the city is “a vast common produced by the collective labor expended on and in the city? The right to use that common must surely then be accorded to those who have had a part in producing it.” So imagined, the city provides a space – figurative and literal – through which to organise our resistance to the precarity of life under conditions of neoliberalism, atomisation, and capitalist realism, by positioning the city as already a kind of commons. We can begin to see traditional, capitalist modes of spatial governance as designed to constantly (re)enclose, capture, commodify and maldistribute the value of our collective project. The urban commons is then something to liberate, seize, or appropriate, rather than invent from scratch.

In urban geography, part of this appropriation is expressed as ‘the right to the city’. The right to the city is, first and foremost, a collective right. It is a body of thought responding to and driving collective action for just and equitable access to the spaces, places, resources, and infrastructure of a city for all inhabitants. It is about appropriating the stuff of the city itself and the processes that produce it to change the city and ourselves for the better. The right to the city is founded on a recognition of the intimate coproduction of material conditions and space; that the processes producing urban space are the same processes that produce our social conditions (Tonkiss, 2005), ergo, to intervene in one is to intervene in the other. There is no model for enacting or claiming our collective right to the city; the way these struggles play out is very situated – the priorities, discourses, aesthetics, strategies and tactics of movements for urban spatial justice are wrapped up in emotional geographies, local politics, conditions, histories, environments, cultures, conditions, and imaginaries.

However, much of the work on the right to the city does not respond to a couple of key questions, on which a generative, beautiful, future worth living, and a re-commoning appropriate for this place, necessarily depends. In the remainder of this piece I’d like to tease out some of those tensions, which remain live and unresolved in my own work, and which I believe are also present tensions in the commoning movement articulated by Tim.

The first issue is that much of the work on the right to the city does not grapple with the tension and contradiction underpinning my occupation of the city to which I am claiming a right. I, like many of us, am a settler – my capacity to stand here and make claims for space relies on invasion, on colonisation, on the ongoing violence and enduring structures of colonialism, which is an enduring “structure not an event”, as Patrick Wolfe (2006) tells us. This is a tension in our conversations about re-commoning and the claims we make on and for ‘public’ space and urban commons. What is the nature of ‘public’ space in a settler-colonial city? For what publics is it there for, and can we really call it public when it has been enclosed and stolen, and not returned to the sovereign people? Is it really up to us to seize an urban commons? Is this not just another act of colonialism?

A right to the city in a settler-colonial context must grapple meaningfully with the fact that cities might be a commons, as Harvey (2012) suggests, but the City is also Country (Jones, 2017; Porter, 2018). Always was. Always will be. A movement for the Right to the City – for the Right to the Just City – must also be a movement supporting justice for First Nations People. This may mean treaties. Paying the rent. Parliamentary bodies. It may mean more that that. It will also mean figuring out what, as settler-colonial folk, our responsibilities to place are, and how to live ethically in relation to place, in community, in commons – how to walk-with, and be together in, place, as Soren C. Larsen and Jay T. Johnson (2017) call on us to do. This work can only be transformational. If it does not unsettle the settlers, I am not convinced the work is being done. Further, it is important to acknowledge that this work, for many of us, relies on a set of skills we lack. We are not used to organising and operating relationally, response-ably, care-fully – for many of us, these ways of relating have not been a dominant part of our culture for a long time. Most of us do not know how to live in commons, or to orient ourselves to place in a way that does not seek to enforce our will, interests, culture, and notions of belonging and ownership premised on the exclusion of others. We need to practice.

The second issue is that much of the existing work on the right to the city has neglected the ecological destruction and injustice that has gone hand in with urbanisation. Beyond that, it has largely ignored the more-than-human inhabitants and co-producers of cities, our more-than-human flatmates in this complex, nested, city assemblage. This reflects a long-standing bifurcation in Western thought: cities have generally been constructed in dichotomous terms as the ‘opposite’ of nature, of the wild – cities are seen as the inside to nature’s outside. The environment has long been conceptually displaced to beyond the city limits – something that cities affect and that affects cities, but from the outside. At best, the environment is construed as something that can exist in defined pockets or zones in cities, but that remains distinct from the city itself.

Yet the work of people in environmental justice struggles, and of urban ecologists and queer ecologists, has sought to muddle these boundaries (see Gandy, 2006; Palamar, 2010; Pataki, 2015). Instead, they argue, we must think of cities as ecosystems – we must recognise that our existence in cities both depends on and is challenged by our cohabitation with a raft of other organisms who also make their homes in/of cities. Cities are (more-than-human) habitats and productions.

More work is needed to understand these connections and entanglements. It is not enough to conceptually accept that we are all connected. We need to feel these entanglements. Proximity and scale matter. Thom Van Dooren (2014) writes that “While we may all ultimately be connected to one another, the specificity and proximity of connections matter – who we are bound up with an in what ways. Life and death happen inside these relationships.” To create commons, to live-in-commons with each other, we need to pay close attention to those we are entangled with, those beings and actants that are our companions and collaborators in these lively assemblages, these commons we call cities.

I’d like to briefly mention an experiment I’m involved in – the Right to the City – Brisbane project. This is a messy collective of people attempting to, through anti-hierarchical and relational, attentive, care-ful organising, experiment and play with ‘the right to the city’ – and make this make sense in Brisbane, Brisbane Country, Brisbane Ecosystem. We’ve done things like guerrilla gardening, pop-up public squares, creative occupations, performance art & community workshops around planning and design issues. Central to the practices of Right to the City – Brisbane is prefigurative politics – the idea that new possibilities, institutions, organisations and relationships may be built in the fractures and wreckage of the systems we currently find ourselves in. It’s not about waiting for a revolutionary moment, it’s about growing transformative change and grow capacity in the cracks of the present, in the fissures and cracks of neoliberalism, as imperfect and constrained as those spaces might be.

The kinds of spaces and actions prefigurative politics produces are not always stable, not always fixed. Indeed, in Right to the City – Brisbane there’s a spirit of playful experimentation that rests on temporariness, on fluidity. One of its key tactics has been creating impermanent spaces – ephemeral commons – that, in their creation and occupation, in the experience of them, we are able to share a collective, public feeling. Therein, we have an affective experience of connection from which we can begin to imagine another way of living, and can practice the practices of commoning. These spaces, the fumble-friendly, fail-friendliness of them are essential to learning – many of us feel as though we are learning from scratch how to organise relationally; how to build capacity in nurturing ways, how to challenge each other and address conflict and failures in ways that are generative and restorative. (These are not always well-developed skills in left-wing and environmental organising!). In these tiny, temporary commons, we are trying to learn what skills we need to learn, figuring out what we never learned to do, to create “conditions we have never experienced” (maree brown, 2017).

Image: Ramanathan Kathiresan (Flikr)

There are cracks in the concrete of the neoliberal city, and we can grow things in them. Sometimes they bloom only for a day, but that is proof enough of the possibility of a verdant future for those of us who had lost any hope of that, or never had hope to begin with. If capitalism has consumed the horizon, the first goal of our struggle is not to reach a horizon – a perfect green utopia – but simply to find a glimpse of one, to make one in each other. To find a way to live, as Donna Haraway (2016) says, “for the recuperation of the critters of the earth, the human and the non-human”. And if, as the right to the city theorists suggests, in changing the city we change ourselves, in seeking a horizon in each other we will find new ones, and change ourselves in the doing.


All my thinking is thinking-with, and I want to acknowledge and thank the messy and overlapping collectives of Right to the City – Brisbane and Brisbane Free University, who move beyond collaboration to co-constitution. Any insight is ours (but any errors or foolishness is mine!).


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