By E. T. Smith
The Commons Social Change Library takes inspiration from the concept of the commons and many related projects and practices. This article introduces ‘commoning’ as a collective practice and includes links to several resources to support that practice.
This article introduces “commoning” as a collective practice for co-creating dynamic commons, emphasizing shared resources, challenges in access, and the need for skills in collective governance to contribute to community resilience and prefigure better futures. A comprehensive resource list includes tools for practicing commoning, examples of commoning practices at different scales, podcasts, videos, case studies, and research on commoning concepts.
The verb commoning offers a short-hand description for participating in collective actions that co-create the ongoing emergence of dynamic commons.
Viewed in the context of the broader set of practices associated with prefigurative politics, commoning can help to open up the space of possibilities from which better futures may emerge.
To illustrate the value of this view of commoning, I begin by outlining three foundational concepts that commoning practices build upon. I then draw attention to two of the obstacles to practising commoning, as well as a few strategies for navigating these challenges. I conclude with some reflections on ways we can practise commoning by taking collective approaches to meeting our basic needs.
Along the way I include quotes from studies of commoning practices and common spaces of various kinds. For those interested in exploring further, a sample of additional resources are listed at the end.
Within these broader contexts, it is important to note that the terms ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’ are also used in other ways, and that practices sharing characteristics with commoning are not always conceptualised as such.
… the terms ‘commons’ and ‘common goods’ are not universal and do not resonate with all geographies and contexts – Tomaso Ferrando et al, 2020.
The need for ‘commons’ is a Westernised idea; from the perspective of many Indigenous peoples, land is not something that can be owned – land is something to be [collectively] used and managed so there is no point in excluding other people from the use and management of land. – Molly Anderson 2023
Shared Resources as Commons
Commons are specific sets of shared resources that are self-governed by a community of users. For instance, resources are treated as commons by communities that collectively decide how and when these can be used by each member (rather than allowing the state or market to allocate the resources).
While commons are often areas of land or water, there are examples of self-governed communities collectively stewarding a range of different resources. Detailed studies of such practices have repeatedly demonstrated that establishing commons can help to ensure that shared resources are used in sustainable ways.
Commons modes of production – as collectively self-governed providers of resources and needs – predated capitalism and are present globally. – Sara Moreira and Mayo Fuster Morell, 2020
Elinor Ostrom, 1990 has documented in many places around the world how communities devise ways to govern the commons to assure its survival for their needs and future generations. A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear the perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is not allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter — a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of ‘governing the commons’ in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles. – Jay Walljasper, 2011
At the heart of the practice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified. – David Harvey 2012
Co-creating Commons through Commoning Practices
Building on these uses of commons as a noun, the verb commoning draws attention to the dynamic actions required to co-create commons in ways that contribute to opening up possibilities for how we care for each other and our environments. In this view, commons are not just external resources but an expression of how we act together.
Commoning, as an activity of caring for and communicating with a living world is a practice of attending to and exploring the possibilities of such an ecology of life, of creatively exploring other ways of being, thinking and doing. – Austin Locke 2020
Studies of how these dynamic actions coalesce into collective practices emphasise that commoning involves a lot of experimentation. For example, Nick Rosk and Andrea Gaynor collected diverse stories of urban food collectives catalysing commoning practices across Australia, while Michael Bresnihan and Michael Byrne detail experiments in Dublin of practising commoning by facilitating shared access to urban space in a manner which is not commodified.
…experiments [are] underway across the country, each demonstrating elements of what we regard as the core characteristics of urban commoning: sharing and collaboration; connection and interdependence; nurturing, care, respect, and trust; celebration, joy, welcoming, and hospitality; healing and overcoming; creativity; and diversity. – Nick Rose and Andrea Gaynor 2018
Those who piece together collective forms of creating and exchanging do so in order to meet concrete needs, and in doing so they confront concrete dynamics of power as they encounter both private (market) and public forces. The tensions thus generated, and the way in which the urban commons does or does not deal with them, can help understand the pitfalls and possibilities of ‘commoning’ as a material practice. – Michael Bresnihan and Michael Byrne 2015.
Emphasising the practice of co-creating commons also highlights the role of relationship-building within commoning. For instance, Kathrine Gibson describes commoning from the perspective of participating in community, and Julie Ristau describes how the creation and maintenance of commons requires us to build networks of relationships within which we each take care of one another and our environments.
The act of commoning draws on a network of relationships made under the expectation that we will each take care of one another and with a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us — which is the essence of the commons itself. The practice of commoning demonstrates a shift in thinking from the prevailing ethic of “you’re on your own” to “we’re in this together. – Julie Ristau 2011
…community is necessary to a commons and is constituted in the act of commoning… a messy and experimental business. – Kathrine Gibson 2018
Commoning as Emergent Relational Practices
Some accounts of common spaces take this notion of relational practices further to emphasise the emergent dynamics of ongoing commoning practices. This emphasis helps us shift away from viewing commons as predefined containers for specific types of relations, and towards a view of commons as emerging from dynamic systems of relations that continually re-create shared spaces.
For example, David Harvey describes the ongoing malleable dynamics that emerge when navigating relationships within commons. Likewise, Stavros Stavrides emphasises that common spaces can continually re-emerge when dynamic porous communities adapt to new collective needs and aspirations.
The common is not to be construed, therefore, as a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood. There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. – David Harvey 2012
…acts that expand commoning are neither totally unexpected nor absolutely innovative. They rather have the characteristics of a musician’s improvisation within a music ensemble… The craft is shared and keeps on producing spaces to be shared. – Stavros Stavrides 2016.
Challenges for Commoning
There are many examples of how common spaces can help us both survive the present and contribute to better futures. However, it is also important to recognise the obstacles to commoning practices within our current socioeconomic systems. By reflecting on these obstacles, we can learn from the various strategies emerging to navigate different types of challenges.
One of the most obvious obstacles to commoning is that our access to spaces within the dominant system of ownership depends on agreeing to conditions that can be enforced by either private owners or public authority.
- Privately owned spaces are either maintained for personal use (e.g, owner-occupied houses), provided to a specific set of predefined people for their personal use under specific terms and conditions (e.g., rental agreements), or function as pseudo-public spaces made available to the public for specific restricted uses under the terms and conditions enforced by, or on behalf of, the owners (e.g., Brisbane’s ‘public’ South Bank area).
- Publicly owned spaces can be used by anyone who submits to the specific terms and conditions of use determined by the governing authority to which the public cede both the responsibility for maintaining the space, and the power to enforce restricted use of the space (e.g., state parks and libraries). There are also publicly-owned spaces that are provided, on behalf of the public, for limited private-use under strict conditions, such as public housing.
In this context, governing authorities can decide to sell to private owners without the consent of people using those spaces. As such, while fighting for public spaces within our current systems is vital, these space do not function in the same way as commons.
Public space, and lots of it, is crucial but we have to realise that we need more than that. People move through public space — but common space is where they stop, what they learn to inhabit, and make their own. – Matt Hern 2010
A range of strategies are being used to carve out common spaces from within the cracks of the dominant ownership models. These include opening some or all of a privately owned spaces to commoning practices, reclaiming under-used private or public spaces, as well creating new commons from unmanaged open-access property and then resisting enclosure.
An example of experiments in commoning aspects of private ownership have generated varied ways of configuring the rights and responsibilities associated with land and building ownership. These include community land trusts, land stewardship, mutual home ownerships, co-housing, and more.
These experiments in alternative ownership structures are an important pathways for carving out common spaces for specific communities. However, within a broader system that treats houses as commodities, alternative ownership approaches still tend to form agreements that specify privileged access for an intended purpose and/or an initial set of participants. While often needed for survival, these agreements can limit the potential for maintaining porous communities through which new members can contribute to an ongoing commoning practices.
If we accept that common space is a type of space that simply has a different ownership status than public and private space, we miss the potentiality inherent in the process of space-commoning. – Stavros Stavrides 2016
Meanwhile, broader commoning practices can be catylsed by resisting ownership structures altogether to re-claim private and/or public spaces for collective use. This approach involves taking responsibility for the care and maintenance of a given space while using them in (often illegal) ways that benefit the local people and environment. This can include medium to long-term practices such as ‘kerbside commoning’ and squatting, as well as more temporary reclaimings such as ‘neighbourhood potlucks’.
These neighbourhood potlucks are just one small and limited project… but I think we are one step towards reconfiguring our park. We’re not allowing it to be reduced to a regulated, constricted public space; instead we’re remaking it as common space where we can get to know folks in a complex, fluid neighbourhood, and doing it in the face of every sign and attempt to officially choreograph what happens there. – Matt Hern 2010
In addition to the risk that access to reclaimed spaces will be withdrawn by public or private owners, the durability of commons depend on the ability of all to negotiate through the constant contestations over the ‘best’ use of a given space by different members of an ever-emerging community.
[Common spaces] neither define people who use them nor are defined by them. They, rather, mediate negotiations between people about the meaning and use of the space they share. – Stavros Stavrides 2016
Regardless of how long a given space survives as a commons, every commoning experiment offers valuable opportunities to practice building respectful relationships and collectivising resources in ways that increase our capacity for building better futures.
Navigating Emergent Communities
Even if there were no access constraints to navigate, it may still be challenging to participate in the emergent practices of adapting to the continually re-emerging collective needs and aspirations of porous communities.
Collaboration in solidarity asks individuals not simply to work together on equal terms and to share equally the products of commoning, but also to be formed as subjects of sharing. Subjects of sharing … accept their incompleteness [while] being formed and transformed without everybody being reduced to fit to perpetuated role taxonomies. – Stavros Stavrides 2016.
Participating in commoning can be an uncertain and uncomfortable experience. It can be tempting to freeze a moment-in-time or rigidly pursue a singular future vision, which aborts the commoning process. To remain open to continual commoning, it is crucial to actively engage with the changing power-dynamics and range of perspectives that are co-creating a given space.
In order for common spaces to remain common there must be developed forms of contestation and agreement about its uses and character which explicitly prevent any accumulation of power. Especially, any accumulation of situated, space-bound power. – Stavros Stavrides 2016.
One way to approach this challenge is by embracing the complex set of assumptions we each bring from being conditioned by the wider environments we exist within. Relatedly, we can challenge ourselves to engage with the discomfit and unsettling juxtapositions that can emerge when we allow our differences to emerge together within common spaces. To allow space for these challenging relational practices, it can help to cultivate multiple small-scale commoning experiments where participants can form unmediated relationships with each other so that trust can be built across our otherwise different contexts.
There is an important lesson here for commoning practices… the common world is not a homogeneous world in which difference is reduced to a unifying identity. – Austin Locke 2020
…discomfort, when felt as collective affective resonances, accentuates the power and politics entangled in commoning projects and identify practices that can make discomfort generative. – Elona Hoover 2020
Past research has also shown that smaller groups are more successful in the management of the commons, thanks to more frequent interactions and higher levels of trust. – Arthur Feinberg, et al., 2023
While challenging, communities with porous boundaries have demonstrated that cultivating distributed power dynamics within commoning practices can create space for many different perspectives to contribute to the continual emergence of a common space.
Discrepancies, ambiguities, and contradictions are necessary ingredients of a potential community… of different people who remain different but recognize themselves as co-producers of a common space-in-the-making. – Stavros Stavrides 2016.
…when considering the conditions of urban environments and their high population diversity: mutual interests in commoning may drive social interactions, through which trust can emerge. Social capital can then bridge people together even in atmospheres of preexisting distrust and divergent interests. – Arthur Feinberg, et al., 2023
Commoning practices offer avenues for reviving skills in the collective governance of shared resources. The more uncertain our large-scale systems become, the more urgently we may need these skills for ensuring we can collectively meet our needs for basic resources like food, shelter, care, and safety.
[urban community resilience]… is the ability of a more or less formal group of individuals, forming a self-organised community, to mitigate the effects of future environmental, socio-economical, and sanitary crises through experimental or disruptive social processes, the unpredictability of which supports collective learning and continuous cycles of change with respect to space, infrastructure, and actors. – Arthur Feinberg, et al., (2023)
These contributions of practising commoning to community resilience draws attention to how much efforts to co-create common spaces share with other self-governing practices, such as mutual aid networks, transformative justice practices, and permanently organised self-governing communities.
Along with these other practices, commoning is part of broader movements seeking to prefigure better futures. Viewed in this way, we needn’t expect our commoning practices to be all or nothing. While experiments in collectivising governance of multiple resources as commons are inspiring, there are also many opportunities to participate in smaller-scale collective actions that build skills in commoning practices.
Examples of smaller scale experiments include collectives that focus on sharing concrete resources (such as food and shelter). Others are focusing on collectivising the resources often embodied by unpaid care-givers (such as child-care and cleaning). There are also some experiments exploring taking collective responsibility for equitable and safe opportunities to participate in society (rather than relying on the allocation of resources such as disability support and emergency aid by governments and their funding of not-for-profit organisations).
Whichever resources we are able to collectivise, using commoning as a verb highlights the continual efforts needed to co-create relational dynamics that can sustain emergent common spaces. This suggests that practising commoning in even small ways can help to open up the space of possibilities for better futures.
Thinking-in-common [doesn’t mean] thinking in the same way or about the same things, but thinking through shared experiences and shared questions… [a practice that can help] transcend existing realities of common worlds and thus envisage new possible forms of commoning and the common. – (Stavros Stavrides 2016).
In addition to the resources mentioned already, the following collection offers a sample of the broader set of resources available for learning more about commoning practices.
Tools for Practising Commoning
- Making Commoning Work a set of resources developed by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier (2017) that highlight the dynamic re-emergence of plurality within commoning practices.
- Tools for Collective Actions for Commoning, curated by the Community Economies Research Network.
- How to organize a pirate kindergarten in your neighborhood. A little manual on collective care and parenting, starting from the specific experience of the self-managed nest Soprasotto in Milan.
Examples of Cultivating Commoning Practices at Different Scales
- The Catalyst Social Centre – a federation of collectives co-creating a radical community space.
- The Second Life Project – a non-hierarchical community building towards collective freedom centered on the wisdom, goals, and vision of citizens who have been directly impacted by prisons.
- The multi-cultural grassroots movement to reclaim the Great Lakes watershed as commons.
Podcasts and Videos Discussing Commons and Commoning Practices
The Frontiers of Commoning Podcast – including an interview with Alanna Irving on Distributed Leadership & Infrastructures for Commoning.
Video recording on Locavore Living: Taking back the commons for the common good, National Sustainable Living Festival 2019. Panel: Devita Davison, David Holmgren, Morag Gamble, Nick Rose, Henry Coleman, and, as MC, Costa Georgiadis.
What if land were owned and managed for the common good Episode 62 of ‘From What If to What Next’ podcast.
Case studies in Commoning Practices
- A campaign in Granby, Liverpool, to create a community land trust to take back empty homes under community ownership after decades of disinvestment and demolition plans, as described by Matthew Thompson, 2015 in Between Boundaries: From Commoning and Guerrilla Gardening to Community Land Trust Development in Liverpool.
- The neighbourhood of Tarlabaşı, as described by Charalampos Tsavdaroglou in The Refugees’ Right to the Center of the City and Spatial Justice: Gentrification vs Commoning Practices in Tarlabaşı-Istanbul.
- An exploration of the role of commoning practices in makerspaces by Árni Már Einarsson 2021, in Crafting, Connecting, and Commoning in Everyday Maker Projects.
Research on the Concept of Commoning
- ‘Commoning Aboriginal Ethno-Architecture’. In Housing as Commons, Angus Cameron and Penny Travlou (2022), edited by Stavros Stavrides and Penny Travlou, 78–94. Bloomsbury Academic.
- ‘Mobile Commoning: Reclaiming Indigenous, Caribbean, Maroon, and Migrant Commons’., Mimi Sheller (2022) Praktyka Teoretyczna, no. 4(46): 29–52. https://doi.org/10.19195/prt.2022.4.2.
- ‘Between Boundaries: From Commoning and Guerilla Gardening to Community Land Trust Development in Liverpool’., Matthew Thompson (2015), Antipode 47 (4): 1021–42. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12154
Books on Commoning
Related Resources in the Commons Library
- Food Activists and Street Kitchens: Cooking Revolutions in the Popular Pot By Virginia Tognola
- Revitalising Democracy, Tim Hollo 2020
- How to make your community space into a hub for local resilience and mutual aid, By Shareable 2019
- Prefigurative Politics in Practice
- Reset Reading Group No. 4: A New Economy
Comments & Questions
If you have thoughts on these questions and/or additional materials that should be included in this list, please contact the Commons Librarians.