What is and who does the curating of reinvented urban commons?

Doina Petrescu

Doina Petrescu's research and practice has been focused on gender, resilience and trans-local participation. Her work and publications have centered critical inquiry into feminist politics and poetics of space and social reproduction (2007, 2016) She is professor of Architecture and Design-Activism at the university of Sheffield and co-founder of the highly influential collective practice atelier d'architecture autogérée (aaa), promoting action-research as an architectural practice to support processes of citizen-led reclamation and transformation of urban sites.

The concept of ‘commons’ refers to the idea that a pool of resources can be managed collectively through processes of ‘commoning’, following collectively agreed rules and governance by a community of ‘commoners’[See David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, The Wealth of the Commons: A world Beyond Market and State (Amherst: Levellers Press, 2012); Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008); and Elionor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990).]. There are traditional commons (such as pastures, forests, rivers, and lakes) and newly created commons (such as the emerging urban commons and digital commons). In a capitalist society which has been developed specifically on principles of commons enclosure, privatisation, and unrestricted exploitation of the planet’s resources, many of the traditional commons have disappeared and many of the newly created commons are currently obstructed or under threat. According to Marxist philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, the contemporary revolutionary project is concerned with capturing, diverting, appropriating and reclaiming the commons as a key constituent process1 . It is a re-appropriation and at the same time a reinvention, because the process faces different challenges at every level and context, that are all having to do with the multiple crises of capitalism.

This reinvention, needs ‘curating’, needs active attention and caring. It needs space and time for sharing and specific agencies based on a different way of meeting needs and provision through cooperation and shared values. It also needs ‘agents’, who are active individuals with their subjectivity and their way of engaging with each other.

With atelier d’architecture autogérée we have engaged in this process since 2001, when Constantin Petcou and myself founded a collective platform in Paris, to conduct explorations, actions and research committed to the revival and reinvention of commons and commoning in contemporary cities2 . We didn’t call it as such at the time, for us, this process involved a tactical re-appropriation and a collective investment of immediately accessible spaces by local residents in order to invent new forms of self-management and shared living that are more ethical and more ecological. We have, as such, realised a number of projects that became urban commons in time, starting with small collective spaces in early 2000s and then continuing with networks and platforms such as the R-Urban network of eco-civic hubs.

For architects, the ‘caring’ which underpins the ‘curating’ approach can take many forms, but most aim to guarantee that their designs include everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible as Tronto and Fischer put it3 .

In our case, our approach was manifold: from designing to initiating, sustaining and defending urban commons, we considered the best alternative to address the multiple crises of capitalism.

We curated spaces, but most importantly we curated agencies – we curated the capacity to act otherwise for all those involved. And we were not alone in these processes. In some of our projects, we have noticed that some of the participants took more active roles in the commoning process and in generating agency within the community. These agents, to use Bruno Latour’s term, were/are for the most part women4 .

This is perhaps because curating the reinvention of urban commons is also part of the work of reproduction, in which feminine subjectivity has a central role to play.

Political philosopher Sylvia Frederici remarked that across the globe, much of the work of reproduction is (still) done by women, for the most part: not only at home, but at the community level, in hospitals, schools, neighborhoods, villages and cities, in both Northern and Southern hemispheres[Sylvia Frederici (2012), Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Oakland: PM Press.]. The work of reproduction is a particular way for women to not only engage with caring processes, but by doing this, to construct their own subjectivity, as subjects connecting to other humans and non-humans.

More particularly, in our projects, they helped us to understand that when we curate the transformation of spaces, we also curate subjectivities and becomings. This is because a relational and co-operative practice, like the one we have developed, has a different temporality and a different aim than those of a neoliberal practice: rather than looking for a material value of profit, it creates the conditions for a liberating experience that changes both the space and the subjects.

We have seen many of the female participants in our projects engaging in re-subjectivisation processes. Beginning as gardeners, they become stakeholders and co-managers of the projects. But we have also seen them helping others to re-subjectivise: from devalued subjects (as for migrant, unemployed or elderly) transforming into active subjects in the community.

We have experienced moments of eviction and demolition in our projects several times, most of the time due to their vulnerability as urban commons built in metropolitan contexts. Limited and short-term land availability, outside the market transactions and without protecting legislation or political support, urban commons are often subject to forms of enclosure5 . In our case, these were important moments that challenged the sustainability of our projects but also key moments of collective re-subjectivisation. For many of the participants, these critical moments were instances when some decided to leave, others stayed to fight, and further curated with us ways of resolving the crisis and resuming the project. ‘Curating’ in these critical moments meant healing, repairing and regeneration, but also very importantly acts of solidarity and transformation into a collective political subject that becomes aware of what it takes to sustain urban commons. Women participating in our projects were our main allies. They were involved in all aspects of caring for the projects and their subjects across all difficulties and troubles. They were those organising protests and helping with media campaigns when the projects were threatened with eviction. They were those advocating in the neighborhood for relocations, and were involved in caring for the components and starting again. They were those that not only ‘stayed with the trouble’ but also used the trouble with responsibility, as a way to reinvent themselves and experience new caring roles in the process of reworlding the project.

They showed us that curating the reinvention of urban commons, even if carried on as a collective process, is a process in which some participants have more agency then others. In this case it was, for the most part, women. This is perhaps a lesson for the immense task we have when we engage in curating urban transitions and reparations within wider reworldings and changes of capitalist contexts.

  1. Negri and Michael Hardt, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
  2. For more about atelier d’architecture autogérée see
  3. Joan C. Tronto and Berenice Fisher “Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring,” in Circles of Care, edited by Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).
  4. For more on this topic, see my article ‘Gardeners of Commons, for the most part women’ in Peg Rawes (ed.) Relational Architectural Ecologies: Subjectivity, Sex, Nature and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).
  5. In other texts we have detailed these processes, specifically in the case of Agoricte in Colombes. There, I have shown the current lack of specific legislation to protect the commons. In the absence of such legislation, the commons depend on the good will of local governments or other external administrations which can refuse to recognise the legitimacy of commoning processes, as was the case in Colombes. Limited and short-term land availability, outside the market transactions, is indeed a significant challenge for urban commons in metropolitan contexts, often affecting the sustainability of projects. The AAA’s projects invented tactics to overcome this challenge: proposing mobile and flexible building systems that can be easily transported and reinstalled in a different context allows for the continuation of the project and strengthening the community around it. See Petrescu D, Petcou C. & Baibarac C.(2016) ‘Co-producing commons-based resilience: lessons from R-Urban. Building Research & Information, 44(7), 717-736.
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