The Re-emergence of the Commons

Sam Hendrikse



Often we look to the past to provide solutions for present-day problems. At a time when habitable and productive space is rapidly decreasing in supply, sharing of resources and development of local cooperatives is becoming more important than ever. To appreciate the potential that the commons hold, one must first understand the function of the commons.




In contrast to the capitalist model adopted by the wider global community of the developed world, the idea of the commons relies on like-minded individuals working towards a common goal. Where capitalism motivates individuals with personal monetary wealth, the commons unites local communities to produce outcomes beneficial to all those involved. This bottom-up method of unifying local people into a focused and productive cooperative requires both faith in the outcome of the operation and the understanding of the effort required by the individual to achieve it. A self-organising collective driven by site specific, locally shared ideas challenges the capitalist model by eliminating the monetary element and shifting the motivation from a desire for private wealth to community gain. In countries where capitalism has failed, a move from often-troubled monetary systems to local production of vital resources is of immense benefit to poorer communities.


The model for a successful commons describes the optimal size for a common and the way in which these systems are nested in a bottom-up fashion. In his book Lean Logic, Flemming (1) outlines a set of 18 rules for proper management of the commons. In particular, rule 4. Manageable Scale states that the maximum number of people contributing to the commons should be limited to 150, in order for all members to learn each others names and develop a greater level of trust in fellow commoners and the collective aim. Rule 4 also sets a limit to the physical area of a common to a size where commoners can easily monitor local detail and the condition of the commons to improve the management of resources. To overcome the area constraints set by Flemming it is suggested that these systems are nested within larger systems as needed; and are managed on a wider scale by elected leaders of the commons with the shared purpose of the commons in mind. Unlike traditional forms of governance, the commons only progress to larger scale management as needed; retaining the benefits of locally managed resources and site-specific information while allowing the management of region-wide resources by higher authorities.




The commons encompasses the morally sound idealisms required to produce social capital for everyone involved with a realistic, shared goal for the commoners to work towards; the enterprise will prosper. When local communities band together with a common interest, revitalisation of a nearby park for example, individual participation increases with the knowledge that fellow commoners are also contributing to the collective cause. Flemming aptly captures this attitude with a short phrase “I can make a difference; we can make it work”. This behaviour is particularly important on a local scale where attention from respective government is often divided between projects seen as more important than the small scale matters of the people. This presents the perfect opportunity for a tactical urbanism intervention whereby local groups reclaim a once common resource through a collective aim and manage it as they see fit. A local park for example could be revitalised and restored through voluntary community work with the common goal of creating an enjoyable open space. It is at this point where conflicts potentially arise with local government, who typically own and manage public open spaces, as commoners circumvent the strict regulations that prevented action in the first place. Governing bodies have to decide between upholding the law or turning somewhat of a blind-eye to these actions to test whether these projects are successful or not. Following a successful outcome some authorities choose to sanction these activities with supporting infrastructure and approval.

The commons provides a platform upon which social governance thrives. While we live in a society where decisions come from a supposedly democratic government at the top, a bottom up approach to managing our public open spaces can provide the general population with what it really wants. A truly common space facilitates social interaction, strengthens community morale and ensures the durability of the common resource it holds. The commons hold the potential to transform the way urban space is used and challenge the capitalist model of the free market through the self-organisation of the common people. No longer bound by conventional currency, monetary wealth and material desire, those who engage with their local commons stand to gain social fulfilment, ethical integrity and independence from the strains of capitalist culture.


(1) Fleming, D. (2011). Lean logic: A dictionary for the future and how to survive it. United Kingdom: David Fleming.