Commoning the City – Ash Amin, Massimo De Angelis, Shannon Mattern, and Richard Sennett in conversation with Michal Huss and Konstantinos Pittas

***A downloadable version of the following conversation is available here***

On 12-13 June 2020 we held an online conference in association with the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and the Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge. The conference, entitled The Commons is Dead. Long Live the Commons!, explored the idea of the commons through spatial, digital, and cultural lenses.[1] The series of debates inquired into the relevance of the commons in an age of digital transformation, globalisation, mounting inequalities, racial violence, and a global pandemic.[2] The central aim was to investigate whether this new reality – a time of enforced distance and mass protests for social justice – could become the basis for new practices of commoning, from the socialisation of goods, healthcare, and digital content, to radical forms of collaboration, collective care, and community solidarity.

The first panel addressed the current potentialities and constraints of the production of the city as a common space. We were interested in the ways in which physical spaces can become “common”, against the backdrop of privatisation, the market imperative of global capitalism, and the proliferation of virtual spaces. To unpack this, we were honoured to host Ash Amin (University of Cambridge), Massimo De Angelis (University of East London), Shannon Mattern (The New School), and Richard Sennett (Council on Urban Initiatives, UN Habitat) – leading voices in academia and beyond who have written extensively on the politics of urban infrastructures and on current forms of constructing, reclaiming, and sharing the urban commons. After presenting a brief summary of the speakers’ talks (which can be viewed online here), an extract from the thought-provoking debate that ensued is provided.

Ash Amin (from 0:05:15 in the video) began his presentation by noting that a shrinking of urban commons – in terms of space, public culture, and the ethos of collective life – is currently taking place across the world. However, despite the privatisation of the commons in different cities, visible commoning practices can still be found: in spaces of public encounter, through public services, and in grassroots occupants’ claims, even though the latter are becoming more subaltern and fugitive. Amin cites an established slum in Delhi as an example of social surplus, where the social occupation of urban space generates a common endeavour in unclaimed or semi-claimed lands of the poor. His street-level ethnography records fleeting street conversations, gossiping, games, and gatherings by the water tanks, whereby information is shared and knowledge is produced commonly. However, as he further highlights, this common production does not occur in another site of marginality, a homeless shelter on the bank side of the Yamuna River. In this case, the social surplus offers very little respite for subjects experiencing extra hardships. These two examples thus demonstrate the contingency of whether co-occupation can turn into a “commons” (such as the existence of welfare services, security, family life, and other social structures) or not.

In his talk, Massimo De Angelis (from 0:19:25) argued that the ability of common spaces to avoid enclosure and corporatisation depends on the ability of social movements to develop synergies and work towards shared horizons. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown signs of the acceleration of these processes, as De Angelis highlighted, it has also shown signs that we might be at “the edge of chaos”, where the existing social order needs to evolve in order to face internal fragilities. Indeed, the pandemic lockdown has further exacerbated the conditions of the crisis that has been unfolding since 2008, if not 1979. Along the same lines, we have recently witnessed a major increase in mass protests, driven by the development of communication tools, the increasing awareness of inequality and structural racism, as well as environmental disaster and climate change. Social movements have adapted to the recent crisis by turning themselves into organisational networks promoting mutual aid, calling for tests, safe work environments, and housing solutions for those in need. Thus, according to De Angelis, the new common languages, values, and systems that are currently emerging could provide an unprecedented opportunity to bring about the end of capitalism.

Shannon Mattern’s presentation (from 0:39:30) shed light on the increasing reliance, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, on digital tools and infrastructures, on the one hand, and, on the other, material spaces and workers who put their own bodies on the line. Alongside a boost for privately-owned pseudo-commons such as Zoom, there have been examples of “commoning in crisis”, for instance when technologists and designers drew up plans for new open spaces, and collectives and communities linked people to new resources. In addition, Mattern noted that cities encouraged and enforced self-distancing through visual spatial marks and surveillance. In some cases, private companies profited from these policies and there is an increased risk that governments will prolong these intensified measures beyond the period of the pandemic. Furthermore, incidents of police violence against people of colour – with the latter already disproportionately affected by the virus – serve as reminders that the city does not treat everyone equally. Often these same bodies put themselves on the line for the common good – as an essential form of labour and through demands for the re-commoning of space. This has brought to the fore the convergence of issues around public health and civil rights, demonstrating that the care for the commons is central to both struggles.

Richard Sennett’s presentation (from 0:53:15 in the video) focused on some of the problems commoning activities face in three different cities in India, illustrating the close interrelations between the nature of public space and the commoning practices that unfold there. One of his case studies focuses on a market in New Delhi, where a mixture of Hindu and Islamic traders co-exist and conduct business without the communal tension usually present in other areas of Delhi. According to him, their sharing in common without coming into conflict may owe something to the nature of the market where goods are untaxed or stolen. In another Delhi neighbourhood, the pandemic resulted in the breakdown of the relations between neighbours and in the abandonment of practices of raising children through communal efforts, demonstrating how family issues provide such a foundational element of the experience of commoning, in particular for poorer communities. In Shanghai, on the other hand, the sharing of laundry space in a residential building continued despite the absence of socialising due to the lockdown. According to Sennett, one scenario was vulnerable to a breakdown in relations and the other was not, which raises the question of how we can share physical space without territorialisation or verbally assigning an identity to it, suggesting that the opening up of space to communal activity can create the grounds for social peace.

Richard Sennett, Ash Amin, Massimo De Angelis and Shannon Mattern

Konstantinos Pittas: There were some really interesting threads between Shannon’s and Ash’s presentations. Ash, you mentioned the materiality, the aesthetics and the visibility of urban infrastructures, and how they affect the spatial experience, the collective formation of knowledge, the being together of the community, as well as the material interexchange of the residents there, by giving two examples – one which failed and another that succeeded. Shannon, you talked about how the city’s infrastructure has been increasingly becoming more digital, more abstract, and more intangible; you mentioned smart technologies, tools of surveillance, the digitalisation of public health information, facial recognition technologies, and so on. A question that I have for both of you is in what ways can we start paying attention not only to what is visible, but also to what is not visible – to the underlying, invisible urban labour conditions that actually construct and sustain the urban commons? How can we expose the economic, political, and institutional underpinnings of such abstract urban digital infrastructures?

Ash Amin: I think the way you put the question, or the contrast between invisibility and visibility, is exactly right. In just the two examples that I was looking at, what is very interesting is that the visual culture of these two spaces is very, very different. But in terms of commoning outcomes, I can say pretty safely that in the desolate space of the homeless – one particular kind of visibility – it is the invisibility of the negligence of the state, of the absence of infrastructures, and of labour market conditions which rely on these individuals as casual workers – once five days a month – it is those things that intervene, with a vengeance if you like, amidst the visibility – all the visibilities of life on the Yamuna Pushta – to undermine it. This is not a digital invisibility, it is a biopolitical invisibility with a devastating impact. In contrast, in Kusumpur Pahari, this is a bona fide old – 30-, 40-year-old – neighbourhood in which the neighbourhood has been constructed by the people themselves, ranging from the organisation of the landscape, right through to the quality of the built [environment]. There it is almost like a surplus of visibility, known to itself and to each other; and it is being co-produced and it is being co-constructed – it is a kind of a historical commons oddly enough – most of the poor neighbourhoods and shanty towns are historical commons oddly enough. This surplus of visibility, in some ways I think, acts to moderate the invisibilities of the market and the state; they are kind of kept in check, they are pushed out. But of course, just to close, when some of the invisibilities become functional – so for instance under the Kejriwal municipal government in the last five years the slums have received an awful lot of infrastructure from water through to electricity, indeed even surveillance cameras every here and there – that kind of productive invisibility has helped to reinforce the hyper-visibility that is producing a kind of people’s commons. So very much like your invitation to try and read the commons around the relationship between the visible and the invisible, but in both cases for me, apart from mobile telephony, these invisibilities are institutional, infrastructural, and biopolitical.

Shannon Mattern: So I think you asked me to speak specifically to the issue of rendering visible invisible digital infrastructures in particular, and this is a trope – rendering visible the invisible – that has been going around for some time, especially after there was a corrective moving away from thinking that digital technologies and virtual existence were disembodied, disconnected from place, and inherently invisible. In the past ten years or so, there have been quite a few public pedagogy projects and art projects that have sought to make visible the invisible, particularly digital infrastructure. There is also a critique that some of this work is very much rooted in the global North in the presumption that we would have an infrastructure that is fully functioning most of the time, and thus have the luxury of having it be invisible to us; this whole “you do not know infrastructure is there until it breaks” statement. I also think that focusing solely on the visible may be allied with some of the other embodied ways of knowing that are part of the labour – both the digital labour and the physical work of maintaining the physical infrastructures that make digital technologies possible. I have written a couple of pieces about what we can learn by listening to infrastructures, through kind of haptic technologies; there have been some interviews with interesting computer technicians and system engineers where they listen to machines or feel vibrations in a different way. So these are additional multi-sensorial ways to make digital processes and digital infrastructures sensible and senseable. But I also think, going back to my comments about public pedagogy, that helping people to be more aware of the infrastructures and labours that make connectivity possible is something that maybe should be part of civics education – which has certainly been deprioritised in much of our public education. This is maybe a role that public libraries could play, and some of the most progressive libraries already have: incorporating public programming, even kinds of pedagogically oriented art projects that have tried to help people to think more critically about where information comes from, how firewalls work, how algorithms determine research results, etc. So making all these invisible – both automated and human choices that are made in the background – more aware to people in their every day digital habits or digital behaviours.

Massimo De Angelis: May I just make a short comment on the question of visibility and invisibility? Of course in our daily life, in our daily routines, in the processes that we are involved in, they always presuppose a particular selection of attention, depending on wherever we are at any given moment. But every object – I have right here in front of me as usual my phone – if you think about it – and we know this, we know because people have been talking about it – we can take a phone from a shop, we buy it, we use it, we connect with it, but in our daily experience we abstract from the network of human, social, ecological, and physical connections that any object like this phone connects us to. The commodity circles, the global commodity chains and how they operate, they are all presupposed in this [showing the phone] and this is invisible in our daily lives; like it is invisible in any slavery or near slavery conditions of which some of the inputs that go into these [phones] are produced; as it is invisible to our daily functioning and operational processes, the environmental pollution that both the use and the way the overall infrastructure of the digital economy is organised at the moment. The same goes for the extraction of the raw material or the domestic labour – in many cases rooted in patriarchy – behind the reproduction of the workers producing this object, or even the commoning at different levels. And of course all this we know – I am not saying anything new – we all know this, but the reason why we know and the reason why for many of us what is generally invisible has become visible and has become part of our awareness is through the social movements that have been emerging around all these issues. That is how we became aware of all the implications that surround any particular object or even any particular section of the city. So I think that it is once again the centrality of the people organising and voicing that makes things visible.

Konstantinos Pittas: Massimo and Richard, I think both of you tackled in a way the issue of the pandemic and how it has influenced common spaces and commoning practices. Massimo, you mentioned that, in a way, you can see now many signs of a growing tendency in commoning practices from mutual aid groups and informal shared healthcare initiatives on a neighbourhood level to open source libraries and different urban commoning endeavours, and all of these show the inadequacy of public and private institutions. You also mentioned how bottom-up social movements can fight against police violence, racial inequality, and how they struggle for the abolition or defunding of the police, etc. Richard, you mentioned how different sharing practices continued even during the pandemic, how social tissues of community persisted even during the pandemic – and in some cases failed – and how there are certain flexible tactical spaces for the commons that have emerged during this period. You also briefly mentioned the idea of the nonverbal, the bodily, and the physical aspect of commoning. So my question – which is a bit general and difficult to address in a sense – is how does the scale and the sustainability of different emerging commoning practices factor into the attempt to fight against the grip of the market, against the state, and even against capitalism? In other words, how can we envision more sustained, expanding institutions of the commons?

Richard Sennett: That is a huge question. I will just try and answer one part of it, which is that to me there is a real separation between what has been called the life world and the world of social movements. Since I have been working at the UN my overwhelming impression in dealing with poor communities is that people are just struggling to survive; they are trying to make the life world work. We would imagine that sharing and community would be the way to make it work; that is too simple a calculation of how commoning at this level – which is a basic level of survival, of getting by – works. In my own view, I think it is a great error to politicise entirely commoning; it has a political side to it, as Massimo has made very brilliantly clear, but it has another side, which is the side of simply making life work, where there is a different set of vectors that comes in. For instance, the act of treating a family as property is something that can be provoked by a threat like the Covid-19 pandemic. That is not a direct line from capitalism to property; it circulates in a different realm of experience. I guess what I am trying to say to you is that I think it would be a great error to reduce the subject [of commoning] to a set of strategies; commoning is a set of social practices and some of these practices [revolve around] those really difficult questions. So I get very uncomfortable about the notion that [commoning is a set of strategies]; certainly collective action is part of commoning, but there are lots of other ways of commoning which are much more simpler in a way, more survivalist, and more complicated, because there is not a connection between capitalism and protection of your family for instance; that is too deductive. I think that you have asked a huge question but my gut reaction is that there is something wrong about the question.

Massimo De Angelis: I agree with Richard in the sense of if you think about commoning as he said in his intervention before, there is a fundamental aspect of it that we learn and we do when we grow up in families and inside the immediate spheres of reproduction, which could be families, households or whatever type at that level of daily life. Although even there, some of the tools that we will need later in life are explored, learnt, and unlearnt, and they have different scales, different dimensions and different implications for these other dimensions. So whether it is true that commoning has a dimension which is not immediately recognisable as political in the sense you are referring to Richard, I think is also the case that we need that extra dimension – that political dimension – which takes also inspiration from the many practices of commoning we do within neighbourhoods, friends, networks, families, etc. which have to do with the reproduction of life, with the emergence of basic values of cooperation that we learn while being with others and transpose them to a higher scale of social and political action. The effort I was trying to do here is that we generally conflate these two dimensions together, but we do not analyse thoroughly the relation between social movements and commoning [that] is to me precisely these two dimensions. Commoning is essentially about the reproduction of life, through collaboration with others, through the invention of new organisational ways and forms based on values that we co-create with others; but we face an environment there which is of a higher scale of social action [that] constrains us, that puts us in particular situations – in different situations – in a world which is complex. And you need that moment of political actions, of social actions, of social movements precisely to change those constraints and to open up spaces, to make these commoning practices flourish at that lower level. Although I agree with you, I would also try and attempt to maintain these two dimensions in some type of organic synergy in order to promote social transformation that is sustainable. But of course every situation has its own peculiarities and specificities, so you know so much of abstractions.

Ash Amin: I think that Richard has opened up a can of worms here and helpfully so, I think. So let me start with a kind of question really: why are we so interested in commoning through the life world and commoning through social movements today? And could it be that we are interested because the formal institutionalisation of the commons or the politics of instituting the commons, through the state for instance, has collapsed with the crisis of social democracy, a particular form of capitalism, particular forms of socialist and communalist living? So might it not be the case that now we are kind of almost – and I do not want to do any disservice to this – but we, in the world of the life world and in the world of social movements, [commoning] has become very prescient and elevated partly because of the evacuation of some kind of institutional protection of the commons, whether this is the environmental commons or the social and the welfare commons. So there, I think I am inclined to agree with Massimo, that there is a kind of hand-in-glove relationship between the survival of the life world and the means by which that survival occurs. And I will just give you a really banal example but I think it is quite telling. In my Yamuna Pushta homeless bank side [case study], all they have is the life world – and it is a kind of hit-and-miss life world – and deep solidarities and wonderful forms of support between individuals. You then have social movements in place there providing an absolute lifeline: food comes two or three times a day – if you can get it – there is a temporary shelter for people of a certain age, and so on. So in that situation the access of the homeless to the means of existence comes through NGOs, which are part of the world of social movements, which are, in a country like India, absolutely critical. But the context of all of this is the utter evacuation of generalised politics of welfare provisioning for an extended citizenry. That seems to me the major dilemma that we find ourselves in the world today in the global North and the global South, that the automatic means by which people can have equitable access to the means of life has kind of broken and it is punctured – you could call it an infrastructural crisis, you could call it a state provisioning crisis, you could call it what you like. To repeat, I think there is an important hand-in-glove relationship between outcomes in the life world and provisions made through other means beyond the life world.

Richard Sennett: If I could respond to that, I think where we disagree is that I do not look at commoning as an activity of cooperation, only. When I think about the elemental problem that I had in the planner in New York City which was how to get white and black people to share the same space physically, the fear of particularly white people who normally do not associate with blacks apart from being psychically close. That to me is a problem of commoning which has nothing to do with cooperative activity. It has to do with something – I would not say it is something lower, I think that this is also wrong – it is an activity which is much more fundamental and it deals with kinds of issues that Foucault wrote about 40 years ago, about the care of the self, how can the care of the self be something which put you one among many. And the notion that you have to cooperate with somebody else to be able to be one among many – which seems to me the most fundamental way to common – it is just wrong. It is not one or the other, but we are so reductive about what we mean by commoning that it is shared endeavours, cooperative interaction, and so on; to make this very profound notion of being in the midst of other people, to trivialise it, and instrumentalise it. So I guess maybe that is also where we have a disagreement about this. As a practical planner, I would be much happier if I made a space which makes people comfortable in the presence of people whose skins are different, than if I organised a social movement that made demands on a city government. I just think that we have to deal with what commoning is; commoning is that you are one among many and then you recognize that; it is not a tactic in that sense. That is part of it but it is much too narrow.

Michal Huss: Can we develop alternative methods to commoning digital infrastructure and smart city approaches in the long term, even when they are rooted in surveillance capitalism and are unequal across marginalised communities?

Shannon Mattern: There are multiple definitions of what a smart city is: there is the very kind of corporate surveillance version of it; there is also one that is really rooted in civic technology, of using public data for public good, essentially; and there are a variety of other ways of conceiving of the term too. But if we think about the “public good alternative,” this already is kind of getting to a partial answer to your question. For instance, the open data initiative that was big ten years or so ago; civic tech which also had its own kind of pushback over the past few years; now there is a lot of major funding in “public interest” technology, there are calls for actually building a kind of public “media stack” where you are essentially building a kind of a public version of all layers of the technological stack. So those are just different points of entry, different kinds of points of intervention where you could develop a more public or commons-oriented approach to developing digital infrastructure. There is also looking at more marginalised populations for which all these practices are not an alternative but a necessity because they are not served by, for example, corporate telecommunications companies – if it is not a lucrative market a high-speed internet company is not going to want to enter there, in which case you have some cities like Nashville, for instance, building their own municipal internet or you have marginalised communities in New York, in Red Hook or the South Bronx for instance, that are actually using mesh networks and building their own community networks. So these are cases where again you can have a public alternative across all layers of the technical stack, from the use of data, to the building of gadgets, to the building of a network infrastructure. [The latter] still does rely on the same undersea cables – we are not going to have our neighbourhood lay an undersea cable – so it still does come back to some things that are going have to be corporate or state-owned. But those other layers do allow for public interventions.

Michal Huss: It seems like the temporary permanent condition of those dwellings plays a part in the extent to which commoning is taking place. Can you speak to the temporality of commoning a bit more, especially in spaces that go through different stages of informality and formalisation, which also change their relationship to the state?

Ash Amin: Difficult question. Here are some typical stages in the life of a slum, at least the ones that I know. In the early days of people becoming and being infrastructures, where everything is done by an emerging occupation and emerging settlement, there the commoning practices are really quite pronounced because you have to cooperate – excuse the word, Richard – but at the same time you also know, you intuit that you are one amongst many. There are a whole series of co-dependencies and the space itself is very much in the making – that is a really critical aspect. What then happens is once the dwelling becomes pukka, once the housing of plastic and wood turns into brick and suchlike and the infrastructure starts becoming more and more invisible – it is very odd – there is a moment of an increased privatisation of life, the increasing instrumentalisation of public spaces, and the de-intensification of that public culture of not so much cooperation but knowing full well that you are in the company of others. The neighbourhood starts becoming more of a neighbourhood, more of a collection of houses, and the things that you collectively enjoy recede into the background both and including your own consciousness. The third phase then, which I think is a really interesting one, let’s call it the COVID phase, is when you get a shock, you get an attack, you get a disturbance of the status quo and the norm. I think in that situation what happens is that things could go in one of two directions: you could get, if there is enough memory around, a return as it were to the past – those early days in which having a culture of one amongst many really worked to the benefit of everybody and so people start at a distance, pooling together again; or you get something else going on which is actually happening in India right now, I think. That is, the rumours that start circulating particularly from the state that these poor neighbourhoods are bearers of disease and the people within them are also bearers of disease – Muslims in particular, that is the script that we are hearing at the moment – what that is beginning to produce in some settled informal settlements is a politics of fear and suspicion. So there, the public culture of COVID is producing a culture of intense fear amongst neighbours on religious lines, on class lines, on all sorts of lines. I rather fear that the balance between this desire to return to the early days of living in each other’s company is giving way to playing by the rubble set by a very bellicose, divisive government in India.

Michal Huss: Massimo, what do you see as the place of the global attention and contribution to creating and developing what are fundamentally commons issues? Is there a problem with axes of care being input by those disconnected from the actual community structures in each place?

Massimo De Angelis: Well I suppose it depends on the context; I am not sure whether we can generalise about something like this. There are some cases in which the mutual aid networks that have been developing as parts of the communities or the broader communities were helpful [to these communities] and others who were not. But through those encounters relations have developed, are developed, and could be potentially developed, and therefore the community itself extends – the sense of what could be a community could extend. But of course all of this depends on the particular situations, the particular context in which they are located and performed. It is also to say, to relate to something that was said before, that commoning here is definitely not a tactic or definitely not only a tactic – I disagree with this reductionism of what commoning is to a tactic as well. Commoning is far more complex; commoning, the way I see it, is a dance of life; it is fundamental because it is the dance of life; everything emerged out of the ongoing interactions for social reproduction, for human reproduction. And out of these social interactions, which often are material as well as immaterial, cultural, and all the different dimensions of a complex social life, out of these emerge values, and cultures, and all other questions. So I am not sure that I would agree with the fact that in what I said I somehow implied that commoning is reduced to tactics at all. On the other hand, though, it is important to reflect on tactics and strategies, but the answer to those reflections it is not something generalised, it is something again situated – like this question prompted me to say – situated in particular scales of social actions. When I refer to higher/lower it is not a value, I am using again complexity theory, understanding holonic structures, in which the hierarchy is not a controlled hierarchy – like the one of the state or corporations or whatever – but it is spheres of action, so the lowers actually give the condition to the higher spheres which overall coordinate larger areas of life. But I just wanted to spell out this: commoning involves all the dimensions of life and in whatever situations we are discussing, we select out what is important in that particular moment; but commoning is definitely not reducible to a tactic, a strategy; it is what it is, it is our being in the world and therefore learning the care of the self, as being said by Richard, understanding to be one of the many. But that understanding of being one of the many comes out and is continuously being renegotiated in the activity of commoning with others. That is all I want to say.

Michal Huss: Richard, can we create or transmit indeterminate spaces out of previously territorialised spaces and how can we publicly readdress previous forms of exclusion, injustice, and exploitation through indeterminate spaces?

Richard Sennett: Well this is a very good question and it is a kind of the holy grail of planning now – how to informalise formally very rigid and formalised structures. The particular tactic that I am interested in is how to work on the edges of public space so that they are much more porous and that the edges become much more ill-defined. But there are ways to informalise; with Ash’s student Pablo Sendra we have just published a book called Designing Disorder [Verso, 2020] which tries to look at some of these ways of informalising overly defined environments.


[1] The conference was convened by Alex Grigor (PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge), Michal Huss (PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge; [email protected]), and Konstantinos Pittas (PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge; [email protected]).

[2] The two-day conference was divided into three panels: “Commoning the City”; “Whose Commons, For Whom?”; and “Reclaiming the Cultural Commons”. Although it was intended to be a physical conference based in Cambridge, the recent pandemic led to us to turn it into a virtual event, taking place on Zoom.