May 7, 2024

Commoning the city: Reshaping property rights and urban governance in Barcelona and Naples

Authors: Bru Laín, Victoria Sánchez Belando, Giuseppe Micciarelli

The commons: an historical track

Examining contemporary commoning practices and common resources requires considering experiences of collective control over material production and social reproduction in the pre-capitalist societies to which they are historically, conceptually and symbolically linked. From a long-term perspective, this encompassed practices such as the imposition of regulations on land, woods and fisheries, collective determination of local markets prices, communal oversight of regional wholesale activities, land and real estate collectivisations, and the enactment of new constitutional and legal amendments aimed at safeguarding popular classes’ rights and liberties. Nevertheless, the emergence of new forms of commoning are also intertwined with more recent transformations of capitalist societies.

The unravelling of the post-war accord between capital and labour resulted in the erosion of the correspondence between labour participation and the provision of public services and resources as well as social welfare policies. Thanks to the Keynesian era’s social pact, workers and trade unions wielded significant decision-making power over these distributive and reproductive mechanisms. However, the current landscape is characterized by the waning (or relinquishment of) influence of labour movements, leading to the gradual privatization of those public services and resources. Consequently, national governments’ ability to address their populations’ basic needs has been compromised, placing the burden on local authorities to tackle the most pressing consequences of poverty and social exclusion.

The financial crisis of 2008 precipitated a reconfiguration of coordination dynamics among public, market, and social actors engaged in the management, provision, and allocation of urban goods and services. The resurgence of solidarity networks and urban social movements gave rise to new demands and practices related to self-management across various spheres of social production and protection. These experiences, in turn, catalysed broader processes of mobilization and politicization, ultimately fostering innovative cooperative arrangements among actors involved in urban governance (Sánchez Belando 2021). Some of these initiatives were gradually formalized as instruments through which different communities asserted their leadership in exercising the right to produce, manage, and utilise urban goods and services and, more broadly, in promoting dynamics of collective appropriation and decommodification of urban property—i.e. exercising the “right to the city” as Henri Lefebvre would put it (Lefebvre 1972).

New urban commons

It is worth pointing out the distinction between the commons (tangible or intangible resources) and the common (the collective action of appropriating and managing a resource while recognising oneself as the leading actor). Following this distinction, organized urban communities are not merely advocating for access to more or new resources and services, but also seeking recognition of their nature and pivotal role as primary agents in producing, managing, and distributing these same goods and services. In Karl Polanyi’s terms, this can be seen as a contemporary “self-protection movement” striving to reintegrate the economic dimension into the political and social fabric of modern market societies (Polanyi 1944).

Currently, the forms and levels of institutionalising commoning practices have given rise to an array of models and instruments for regulating the ownership and collective management of urban goods and services. From below, these experiences aim at countering the commodification of urban welfare system and management structures, as well as the privatization of public assets. Consequently, many of these initiatives seek to democratise the use and production of urban space, leading to establishing public-community cooperation instruments and democratic decision-making frameworks. Although the extent to which municipal governments support or facilitate such initiatives varies across different cases, recent experiences of the so-called new municipalism demonstrate that urban commoning experiences—encompassing both resources and their communalization processes—usually require different degrees of material and/or political-legal intervention by public institutions. This gives rise to what Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval have termed “public institutions of the common” (Dardot and Laval 2019). 

New public institutions of the common: Barcelona and Naples

Two examples of these new institutions are to be found in Barcelona and Naples, which, amidst the surge wave of new municipalism, sought to advance towards the horizon of the so-called “commoning the state” (Méndez de Andés, Hamou and Aparicio 2021) through a more or less institutionalized public-community partnerships operating at local, municipal, or regional level.

In Barcelona, the regulatory framework setting up this kind of partnerships is embodied in the Programa de Patrimoni Ciutadà d’Ús i Gestió Comunitàries (Citizen Property Programme for Community Use and Management) implemented in 2017. This programme formalises and systematizes a pre-existing array of instruments and regulations of the local and Catalan administration, designed to govern community use, publicly owned property, public-private agreements, and citizen participation. However, the legal framework implemented during the 1990s, curtailed organized citizens’ ability to intervene in political decision-making processes, while prioritising the private outsourcing of public facilities and services. Consequently, Patrimoni Ciutadà was explicitly crafted to institutionalize and safeguard those practices of collective management and provision of resources and services in vacant, unused, or degraded urban space and infrastructure, by formally recognising leading communities not only as a guards and managers of these assets but also as suppliers of public services delivered within such spaces.  

The program incorporates the so-called Gestió Cívica (Civic Management), an agreement of cooperation regarding the management of public assets between the public sector and associations, partially provided by former municipal regulations. While the Patrimoni Ciutadà and, within it the tool of Gestió Cívica, represents a broad and flexible framework devoid of a regulation or legal status, it allows for nearly ad hoc agreements between the funding public administration and the managing communities, which are regularly audited. The specific obligations and commitments of these communities are measured and reported using the Balanç Comunitari (Community Balance), an instrument devised to gauge the social contribution and impact of such initiatives. Public economic support varies depending on the conditions of provided facilities or the nature of the project. Some projects are reluctant to interact with the municipality and thus only receive funding for strictly space maintenance, while others actually accept more substantial support for managing and programming activities.

In Naples, regulation concerning the so-called emerging commons results from the municipal recognition of the Collective and urban civic use, the legal framework of which consists of two types of acts: on the one hand, the city government's acts and, on the other, the Dichiarazioni di uso civico e collettivo urbano (Declaration of Urban Civic and Collective Use), which are recognised by the former. This model was theorized and promoted for the first time by the assembly of art and culture workers managing the Asilo Filangieri, during the occupation of the building. Every Dichiarazione is different for each emerging commons; these series of self-regulation rules were drafted from 2012 to 2016, entailed a complex negotiation and deliberation process involving the heterogeneous communities of any emerging commons, the advisory body Observatory of the Commons, technical staff, and then of the City government.

On the one hand, the urban civic and collective use has its legal antecedent in 2011 with the municipal recognition of water and culture as common goods, and the establishment of the Observatory of the Commons, and the Department for Urbanism and Commons (part of the City Government) which includes a specific administrative unit. On the other hand, these practices of collective management have developed their own governance methodologies, translated into a system of regulations encompassing criteria for usage, access, and decision making. Drawing inspiration from the rights of collective use and management referred to in Italian law as usi civici, the urban civic and collective use was formally endorsed by the City who remains as the owner of transferred assets, thereby retaining the authority to regulate access norms and covering the maintenance costs and services of the facility. Nevertheless, it lacks the authority to regulate the relations, the decisions and the activities of the commoners. Instead of replicating conventional outsourcing to third sector associations, the Dichiarazioni distributes and allocates right of use to all and the collective management through an assembly ecosystem, thus recognising the civic-collective management nature of these leading communities, and acknowledging their social and cultural contribution to preserving and adapting local heritage and a kind of communitarian welfare according to mutualistic and open standards.

The debate on property rights and urban governance

The emergence of new public institutions of the common and the aspiration towards commoning the state requires new perspectives of conceiving property rights, wherein they are seen as a bulk of dispersed and collectively allocated rights to use, produce, manage, and distribute services and resources that are sometimes privately owned (such as a building or a vacant lot) and sometimes public (like unused infrastructure or services such as water, etc.). This legal and political framework should afford enhanced opportunities for participation and co-leadership in urban governance. Consequently, the emergence of these new institutions of the commons (not only the very commoning initiatives but also the political and legal instruments implemented by public institutions alongside organized communities, as in Barcelona and Naples) highlights at least three issues regarding new ways of conceiving property rights, as well as political, and power-governance dynamics.

First, property ownership—at least, when involving urban services and resources—does not rely, as often sustained by the dominant economic liberal paradigm, on individual, exclusive, and absolute rights and prerogatives (Laín 2023). Instead, ownership relies on a set of overlapping, interconnected, and interdependent rights, interests, and responsibilities belonging to a broad range of public, private, and community actors, thus outlining a multi-level governance model that is always a source of political dispute. The legal realism tradition has called this the “bundle of rights” perspective (Penner 2020), which seems to be quite consistent with our cases of study.

Second, new public institutions of the common make explicit that legal institutions such as property rights and norms on citizens’ participation, are also the output of these very same communities’ political activity. In other words: the community shapes the law. The crucial point here is to what extent and in which manner do they do (or are able to do) so. The Barcelona’s Patrimoni Ciutadà and the Naple’s usi civici urbani represent two illustrative examples of the capacities as well of the challenges of how new urban common experiences interact with existing legal codes while reshape or create new legal tools.

Finally, it is worth noting that these legal tools also facilitate the emergence of new communities while enhancing their internal cohesion and external performance. Because of this, the legal realm becomes a political battleground that communities should use to ultimately redesign both their formal structure to interact with public and private institutions, as well as their practical capabilities to address urban governance dynamics. The idea at play here is “hacking the legal” (Micciarelli 2022)—that is, forcing legal codes and regulations in unconventional and innovative ways to adapt them to the requirements and aspirations of these communities. By doing so, organized communities can potentially rebalance political and legal instruments to assert influence in the power dynamics setting up urban governance. In this regard, the experiences of Barcelona and Naples, with their successes and challenges, exemplify the pivotal juncture encountered by numerous urban commons initiatives.