Urban Governance and Social Innovation

Urban Commons

In recent years, since the goal of a participation society was announced, a growing interest in the commons has emerged. Traditionally, the concept of a commons has been associated with natural resources in rural areas, such as the drinking water supply, irrigation systems, fishery waters, forests for logging and grazing land. It involves the joint administration of the shared – common – resource by the users by means of self-organisation. As a coordination mechanism, the commons therefore offers an alternative to the logic of the state and the market with regard to the management of common resources.


Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Elinor Ostrom showed that not only is this joint administration an idealistic pursuit, but that it can also lead to excellent results. Today, the commons has become a popular concept in cities as well: a buzzword, if you will. Civic initiatives have begun referring to themselves as ‘urban commons’. Attend any conference on urban renewal and the idea of a commons is sure to be on the programme. The Amsterdam municipal authorities even included the concept in their council agreement. And yet: the precise nature of an urban commons and how it works remains unclear. This remains a point of much debate in the literature as well, although the discourse is still in the exploratory phase.


The Centre of Expertise (CoE) Urban Governance and Social Innovation is taking part in this exploration. Urban commons is one of our central themes and, together with our partners, we are researching what a commons is and how to apply the concept in practice. Like the traditional rural commons, the commons with which the CoE Urban Governance and Social Innovation is concerned involves the self-management of common resources by a group of users. In the context of a city, however, each of these three elements must be redefined.

A common resource in an urban setting might be a physical resource, such as a building, park or means of transportation used by various individuals or groups of people for the purposes of their own activities. But just as often, if not more frequently, the resource is an intangible or virtual aspect such as the image of a shopping street or the social network in a given neighbourhood. Examples of users would be the surrounding residents, business owners or social professionals. Above all, the city is a network in which various parties have a strong mutual connection and shared interest, either direct or indirect. This means that multiple stakeholders must, between themselves, arrange for the management of the common resource. The municipal government has a special position in this regard, as some civil servants for the city are also stakeholders such as area brokers or supervisory authorities. Others have a stake in the area surrounding the commons, such as those who make policy for the central services.


At CoE Urban Governance and Social Innovation, we are attempting to understand urban commons as a model for collaborative governance. The joint administration of the common resource is a partnership, a collective action, between the various stakeholders. More often than not, the government plays an active role in such partnerships. Our applied research therefore focuses on the identification of obstacles or underutilised opportunities for these partnerships, so that targeted interventions may be developed to strengthen the collective action. This might involve the mutual coordination of investments, community-building or policy innovation. The goal, of course, is to arrive at solutions that support the desires and needs of the users. In this way, the commons can serve to reinforce the local democracy.

6 April 2020

  J. Meerkerk (Joachim)

Researcher and PhD Student

Tel: 0624095539
View profile

  dr. S.B. Bos (Sandra)

Senior Researcher & Project Manager

View profile