On Januari 29th, in the middle of a Covid-lockdown, Louis Volont (Department of Sociology & Culture Commons Quest Office, University of Antwerp) defended his doctoral thesis ‘Shapeshifting: The Cultural Production of Common Space’. City in the Making in general, and Pension Almonde specifically, was one of the three main cases Louis used as ‘witnesses for the defense’. The other two being The Public Land Grab (London) and Montana Verde (Antwerp). The full thesis can be read online, but here is a foretaste.
In his introduction Louis states his basic ‘empirical’ research question thus: “This enquiry puts the concept of common space to the test. My guiding question, is this one: how is common space’ produced within the current conditions of urban development? Put differently: through which tactics do urban activists give a spatial expression to the concept of the commons?”
The study main ‘guide’ is Lefebvre’s ‘triad’ (from ‘The Production of Space’ and ‘Critique of Everyday Life’); ‘lived’ space (representational space), conceived space (representations of space), and perceived space (spatial practice). But Louis renames/redefines this Lefebvrean triad because of: “Lefebvre’s ‘woolly’ formulation of the triad’s three spheres. Representations of space as well as spaces of representation seem to figure in the triad as things, namely as visual, verbal or written projections in the context of the former, and as spaces endowed with a sense of multiple meaning in the context of the latter. Spatial practice, then, emerges not as a ‘thing’, but as a ‘process’: a process of putting space to use, be it for survival, societal reproduction or capitalist growth.” Instead, the triad is reformulated as “the expressions of representation (formerly known as representations of space), configuration (formerly known as spatial practice), and signification (formerly known as spaces of representation): altogether the three ‘force fields’ of the triad. These three force fields leave behind any distinction between ‘thing and process’ but imply merely ‘a mode of doing’. This is a linguistic, pragmatic operation in order to be able to point, without much confusion, to each of the three elements under consideration. Hence: within the field of representation, I ask: how do commoners ‘think’ common space? Within the field of configuration, I ask: how do commoners ‘build’ common space? And in the field of signification, I ask: how do commoners ‘live’ common space?”
The conference focuses on self-governance, cooperation, and institutional change through examples from all over the world, but also pays much attention on the significant current-day developments on common-pool resources and cooperatives within the Netherlands (such as knowledge commons, energy cooperatives, care cooperatives, urban commons, and other citizens’ initiatives), not only by inviting representatives of those Dutch initiatives to join as conference participants, but also by offering them an opportunity to draw attention to their initiatives, by organizing public events and field-trips.
The excursion we will witness recent developments in urban commons taking place in the city of Rotterdam – dealing with housing, food, and education. City in the Making is hosting it together with Food Garden (De Voedseltuin), a charitable organization that distributes food to low-income individuals to avoid hunger and Rotterdam Skillcity (Vakmanstad), a knowledge common, where primary school children are taught gardening, cooking, aikido or judo, technology and programming, and philosophy on a weekly basis.
Over the past few years of creating affordable living- and workspace in the city, we have come a long way from the very few initiatives we had found acting in this field, to the current pool of citizens that are about to (or in de midst of!) taking part of the cities’ space into collective use. And like us, most of them have found that it is urgent to take this effort beyond the often temporary access we have been able to achieve till now. How can we secure permanent access and control over the spaces so vital to our lives?
On 28th of May, an international group of city makers came together at the Stoking House of City in the Making, to discuss the current state of affairs. It is interesting to see new urban communities arising from these efforts, and observe how they build a new future on the often disregarded, outlived or scrapped resources that are available in the city. But in the increasingly market dominated sphere in which even citizens’ initiatives find themselves acting, this often means that we have to take ourselves to that same market of real-estate to buy up the remains we aim to give a new, collective future. For most of us, that means a tough puzzle of mobilising enough capital to “save” the buildings for our cause.
Hence, we have extended discussing that challenge during the rest of the day in the context of the Re:Kreators network (aka fellow city makers) which is currently forming in Europe. One of the challenges is to match the acquisition of real estate (buying it in order to bring it into common, anti-speculative ownership) with the mission of keeping spaces affordable.
Of course, the exchange of experiences and expertise among the initiatives is already proving crucial and inspiring when facing this challenge. But we could take it a step further: by forming networks that can set up a revolving investment fund together, so that at least the seed funding necessary to make a start can be quickly mobilised. It is an idea quickly gaining traction in several of the discussions we have been feeding into: from the upcoming Re:Kreators to the VrijCoop (the Dutch branch of the Mietshäuser Syndikat) currently set up. A crucial bit of urban economy being re-invented?