Urban commons

How to attend this course

The aim of this course is twofold: first, to critique the mainstream trends of urbanisation and, second, to discuss alternative urban futures premised on the commons. This course consists of six classes. Each class begins with an anchor video, which provides a bird’s eye-view of the class introducing the main problems and lessons. Then the selected videos go into more depth. For even more depth, one should study the proposed readings. Finally, some classes conclude with a quiz to use the reading and watching material in a more experiential setting. Ideally watch and study the material in the recommended order.

Class 1: Unveiling the urban challenges
  1. Anchor video.
  2. Videos:
    • Three decades of Earth seen from space (2 min).
    • The members of the European Network of Political Ecology explain what Political Ecology is about (12 min).
    • Maria Kaika talks about what Urban Political Ecology is (14 min).
  3. Readings:
    • The UN’s data booklet highlights current and future trajectories of populations in cities around the globe (≈60 min).
    • Erik Swyngedouw discusses the political ecology of the hydro-social cycle, or how “water no longer flows downhill” but rather “it flows towards money” (≈30 min).
    • Nik Heynen illustrates how urban environmental and social change co-determine each other. He also shares insights into creative pathways toward more democratic urban environmental politics (≈40 min).
  4. Quiz: Create a then-and-now collage of a place that has rapidly changed from rural to urban. Discuss what kind of change took place; why this change took place; and who lost and who won from this change.
Class 2: Why technology (alone) can’t save the city
  1. Anchor video.
  2. Videos:
    • Ruth DeFries argues for an ecomodernist future (9 min).
    • Rachel Pritzker, co-author of “The Ecomodernist Manifesto”, discusses why we need ecomodernism (5 min).
    • A short video on how planned obsolescence works (10 min).
    • Adam Greenfield challenges the popular concept of “smart cities”. Arguably smart cities are often designed to be about consumption, convenience, and security. However, Greenfield claims that such a state will exist only for few, for the rest it will be a permanent state of exception (24 min).
    • Jacques Ellul elaborates on “the betrayal by technology” (54 min).
  3. Readings:
    • Jason Hickel explains why green growth is not possible (≈25 min).
    • Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos argue that new technologies alone cannot address the socio-ecological problems and that systemic changes are needed (≈20 min).
    • Maria Kaika discusses “what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators” (≈30 min).
    • Wolfgang Drechsler and Vasilis Kostakis discuss how the “smart city” could become a “good city” (≈5 min).
    • Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw take water and water networks as an emblematic example to excavate the shifting meanings of urban technological networks during modernity (≈50 min).
  4. Quiz: Describe in words (one page) or with a drawing the supply chain of a digital technology, you often use, from the cradle to the grave. This should include: a) where the materials of the device come from; b) where the device is manufactured and assembled; c) where the device is used; d) where the device may be disposed.
Class 3: Is another city possible?
  1. Anchor video
  2. Videos:
    • A two-minute-long video that introduces the idea of the commons (2 min).
    • A short documentary introduces the promise of the commons featuring cases from both the Global South and North (12 min).
    • Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom discusses the commons and their tragedy (5 min).
    • Katherine Gibson talks about post-capitalist alternatives (61 min).
  3. Readings:
    • David Bollier discusses how to build a radically different system while living within the constraints of capitalism (≈40 min).
    • Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione explain what the concept of the urban commons is emerging (≈40 min).
    • J.K. Gibson-Graham bring marginalised, hidden and alternative economic activities to light (≈60 min).
Class 4: Case studies of the urban commons
  1. Anchor video
  2. Videos:
    • Zack Walsh briefly presents the key principles of urban commons and some exemplary case studies (20 min).
    • A group of engaged citizens in Bangalore transforms a polluted urban lake into a co-managed, healthy ecosystem (4 min).
    • Building a wikihouse at Fountainbridge, Edinburgh (4 min).
    • A short video on a wireless community network in a village of South Africa (7 min).
    • In mountainous Tzoumerka (Epirus, Greece), farmers and scientists create a community to build their practical solutions and tools for their production needs, using modern and traditional technologies. The urban blends with the rural towards a convivial mode of technology development (52 min).
  3. Readings:
    • An urban commons “cookbook” that introduces some case studies and explores strategies for creating and maintaining the urban commons (chapter 4) (≈60 min).
    • Feinberg, Ghorbani, and Herder present a comprehensive literature review about the field of the urban commons, its diversity and challenges (≈30 min).
    • George Dafermos documents the organizational model of one of the most interesting cooperative projects to have emerged in Europe in the age of crisis – the Catalan Integral Cooperative (≈40 min).
Class 5: The city as a commons
  1. Anchor video
  2. Videos:
    • David Bollier considers the city as a commons (30 min).
    • Sheila Foster discusses “Co-Cities” and offers a set of design principles that can help position cities and city space as a commons (60 min).
  3. Readings:
    • Stavros Stavrides explores contemporary practices of urban commoning and constructs a theoretical argument on the inherently emancipating potentialities of common space (≈30 min).
    • Natalia Radywyl and Che Bigg explore how the replication of small scale interventions could act as critical leverage points for sustainable urban transformation (≈50 min).
    • Alexandros Kioupkiolis investigates two variants of a strategy for advancing urban commons that diverge in crucial respects (≈30 min).
  4. Quiz: Contribute content to Wikipedia or to any other existing wiki. Read here the guidelines.
Class 6: Urban futures in between the frog and the eagle
  1. Anchor video
  2. Videos:
    • The work and thought of William Morris (5 min).
  3. Readings:
    • A summary text of the online conference, entitled “The Commons is Dead. Long Live the Commons!”. The conference, held in June 2020, inquired into the relevance of the commons in an age of digital transformation, globalisation, mounting inequalities, racial violence, and a global pandemic. The central aim was to investigate whether this new reality could become the basis for new practices of commoning (≈30 min).
    • J. K. Gibson-Graham invite us to practice transformative politics by involving an opening to the local as a place of political creativity and innovation (≈60 min).
    • A new commons-based politics of scale for the city and beyond (≈50 min).
    • Maria Kaika calls us to explore the world like a frog and see it like an eagle; to be present locally, splashing (frog-like) into the murky waters of empirics; and to zoom-out broaden the gaze (eagle-like) from localised struggles, make comparisons and develop broader conceptual contributions (≈30 min).
  4. Quiz: A no more than 500-word-long essay, which would discuss how to address ecological breakdown and inequality and what future may lie ahead.

Funding & Acknowledgements

The work was supported by the Centre for Urban Studies of the University of Amsterdam.