Urban Studies Urban Commons
Sheila R. Foster, Christian Iaione
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0015


With global urbanization rapidly increasing and with over half of the world’s population already living in cities, the framework of the “urban commons” has emerged as a way to address contemporary urban challenges ranging from urban housing to urban inequality. The concept of urban commons is based on the idea that public spaces, urban land, and infrastructure ought to be accessible to, and able to be utilized by, urban communities to produce and support a range of goods and services important for the sustainability of those populations, particularly the most vulnerable populations. The founding principles of this movement include sharing, collaboration, civic engagement, inclusion, equity, and social justice. Urban commons are created and managed by civic collaborations including participants from local communities, government, business, academic, and local nonprofit organizations. In this way, the city is a platform utilized and optimized by citizens from all backgrounds and social statuses.

General Overviews

The urban commons is a relatively new concept developed over the last decade but has its roots in the long historical and intellectual lineage ranging from the enclosure movement in England to the classic essay Hardin 1968 to the Nobel prize-winning work Ostrom 1990, including many examples of community-governed common pool resources. A number of works analyze commonly shared urban resources through the lens of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Lee and Webster 2006 analyzes urban neighborhoods as prone to the tragedy of overconsumption and enclosure as the likely result, particularly in the context of contemporary urban and economic development. Fennell 2015 conceptualizes urban interaction space as a common pool resource, subject to classic collective action problems that also underlie the tragedy of the commons. Others, however, invoke Ostrom’s work to acknowledge the ways that communities and local inhabitants can collectively manage shared urban resources. Foster 2011 investigates urban community gardens, park conservancies neighborhood watch groups, and business improvement districts as examples of Ostrom-like commons in the urban context. Foster and Iaione 2016 offers the idea that the entire city is a commons based on a pluralist account of how the commons has been conceptualized by various scholars and intellectual traditions. Foster and Iaione 2019 articulates more specifically the ways that shared urban resources and collective action in cities can create common goods that are distinct from the emergence and characteristics of traditional common pool natural resources. Many scholars find neither Hardin’s nor Ostrom’s conceptualization of the commons particularly satisfying for understanding how urban commons emerge. Huron 2015 argues that the unique aspect of urban commons is that they are created in a saturated, contested space by the coming together of strangers in the context of a capitalist market. Stavrides 2016 investigates the city as a site that is heavily regulated by the state, a site of capital production and surplus, and a place of contestation for resources. Dellenbaugh, et al. 2015 is a collection of essays that examine through a variety of international case studies the many ways that urban commons encompass both material and immaterial resources—ranging from housing, urban infrastructure, and public spaces to culture, labor, and public services. Finally, in Borch and Kornberger 2016, various contributors demonstrate that can the concept of the urban commons implicates an array of critical and interdisciplinary perspectives and opens up rather than answers questions regarding urban governance, belonging, subcultures, and poverty among other aspects of urban living today.

  • Borch, Christian, and Martin Kornberger, eds. Urban Commons: Rethinking the City. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 2016.

    Various authors in this volume examine how the notion of the commons opens up new understandings of urban collectivities and addresses a range of questions about urban diversity, urban governance, urban belonging, urban sexuality, urban subcultures, and urban poverty. Many contributors also discuss in more methodological terms how one might study the urban commons.

  • Dellenbaugh, Mary, Agnes K. Muller, Markus Kip, Majken Bieniok, and Martin Schwegmann, eds. Urban Commons: Moving beyond State and Market. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser, 2015.

    This collection of essays examines how the urban condition has shaped the development, experience and preservation of various urban commons. The authors in this volume investigate the urban commons theoretically and empirically through a wide spectrum of international case studies from cities as diverse as Berlin; Hyderabad, India; and Seoul. Urban commons are broadly identified as including housing, public space, labor and public services, art, and urban infrastructure.

  • Fennell, Lee. “Agglomerama.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2014 (2015): 1373–1414.

    The author conceptualizes urban interaction space as a type of commons. Cities present a particularly challenging collective action problem—how to achieve the benefits of proximity among people and land uses while curbing the negative effects of that same proximity. The author frames this as a “participant assembly problem” and considers a range of approaches to resolving it, from minor modifications of existing approaches to larger revisions of property rights.

  • Foster, Sheila R. “Collective Action and the Urban Commons.” Notre Dame Law Review 87.1 (2011): 57–134.

    Examples of urban commons identified by the author are parks, public spaces, and local streets. These spaces become “rivalrous” much like traditional common pool resources through “regulatory slippage” in the urban environment. New local institutions such as community gardens, park conservancies and groups, neighborhood watch associations and business improvement districts have emerged in response to this slippage and represent new forms of collectively governing shared urban resources.

  • Foster, Sheila R., and Christian Iaione. “The City as a Commons.” Yale Law and Policy Review 34.2 (2016): 281–349.

    The authors offer a pluralist account of the urban commons and make a distinction between “open access” commons subject to overconsumption by users and common goods, which communities can share and self-govern with other urban actors. These goods can be “as essential to communities as are water and air.” The authors also suggest the possibility of increased resource value due to community engagement and interaction with said commons.

  • Foster, Sheila R., and Christian Iaione. “Ostrom in the City: Design Principles for the Urban Commons.” In Routledge Handbook of The Study Of The Commons. Edited by Blake Hudson, Jonathan Rosenbloom, and Dan Cole, 235–255. London: Routledge, 2019.

    Many of Elinor Ostrom’s original design principles can be redesigned and adapted to fit modern challenges facing cities. These challenges include a diverse population, relationships to both past and current institutions within the city, and resources that may not be renewable. The authors argue for cooperation between private, public, and community actors and identify a number of key practical mechanisms to facilitate collaboration between these actors.

  • Hardin, Garrett. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162.3859 (1968):1243–1248.

    The author argues that “freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” The way to avoid overconsumption and congestion in the commons is either to create private property rights in the shared resource or to regulate the commons as a public resource and allocate use rights in some agreed upon manner.

  • Huron, Amanda. “Working with Strangers in Saturated Space: Reclaiming and Maintaining the Urban Commons.” Antipode 47.4 (2015): 963–979.

    The author identifies two distinctive features of urban commons: they are enacted in a saturated space and constituted by the coming together of strangers. Urban commons must be “wrenched” from the capitalist landscape of cities, which requires participation in the capitalist process and as such are always susceptible to being co-opted by the market.

  • Lee, Shin, and Chris Webster. “Enclosure of the Urban Commons.” GeoJournal 66.1–2 (2006): 27–42.

    The essay explores the enclosure of urban neighborhoods in contemporary China where new forms of local territorial governance are emerging to make joint consumption more sustainable. The authors argue that enclosure, of land and resources (like labor), is unavoidable in the context of urban economic development. Resources governed by common or shared-use rights tend to deplete thorough unrestrained competition and tend to require a restructuring that protects against dissipation.

  • Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    In this prize-winning work, Ostrom offers an empirical alternative to the two choices Hardin proposed to avoid the tragedy of the commons. Instead of a private property or public regulatory solution, this book presents case studies of long-enduring self-organized and self-governed common pool resources. The author offers a framework for analysis of collectively governed common pool resources that can be applied to other case studies.

  • Stavrides, Stavros. Common Space: The City as Commons. London: Zed Books, 2016.

    The author argues that the city itself must cease to operate under capitalistic principles to be a commons. The author considers the commons as sites open to public use in which rules and forms of use do not depend on and are not controlled by a prevailing authority. An essential trait of the commons is the destruction of boundaries separating public and private. Commons can only thrive in an open-network system.

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