Ostrom in the City: Design Principles and Practices for the Urban Commons

Chapter by Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione in Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons (Dan Cole, Blake Hudson, Jonathan Rosenbloom eds.): “If cities are the places where most of the world’s population will be living in the next century, as is predicted, it is not surprising that they have become sites of contestation over use and access to urban land, open space, infrastructure, and culture. The question posed by Saskia Sassen in a recent essay—who owns the city?—is arguably at the root of these contestations and of social movements that resist the enclosure of cities by economic elites (Sassen 2015). One answer to the question of who owns the city is that we all do. In our work we argue that the city is a common good or a “commons”—a shared resource that belongs to all of its inhabitants, and to the public more generally.

We have been writing about the urban commons for the last decade, very much inspired by the work of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom. The idea of the urban commons captures the ecological view of the city that characterizes Jane Jacobs classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (Foster 2006) It also builds on Elinor Ostrom’s finding that common resources are capable of being collectively managed by users in ways that support their needs yet sustains the resource over the long run (Ostrom 1990).

Jacobs analyzed cities as complex, organic systems and observed the activity within them at the neighborhood and street level, much like an ecologist would study natural habitats and the species interacting within them. She emphasized the diversity of land use, of people and neighborhoods, and the interaction among them as important to maintaining the ecological balance of urban life in great cities like New York. Jacob’s critique of the urban renewal slum clearance programs of the 1940s and 50s in the United States was focused not just on the destruction of physical neighborhoods, but also on the destruction of the “irreplaceable social capital”—the networks of residents who build and strengthen working relationships over time through trust and voluntary cooperation—necessary for “self-governance” of urban neighborhoods. (Jacobs 1961) As political scientist Douglas Rae has written, this social capital is the “civic fauna” of urbanism (Rae 2003)…(More)”.