Urban Commons: A Stakeholder Analysis

Social Entrepreneurship Fall 2012 George Kay

Case Study: Urban Commons: A stakeholder Analysis

The commons are a gray area, neither public nor private, yet at times it is both.  They are nebulous in nature, constantly changing shape and area.  They are defined more by the people that use them, rather than the physical area they represent.  They have a difference value to the different stakeholders that use them.  Each group has different positives and negatives associated with the commons.  Thus, to talk about the commons, you must talk about who is using them, what they are using them for, and why they are being used.

Stakeholders in the commons vary from the poorest of beggars, to the most powerful politicians, and everything in between. To the poorest of the poor, the commons represent a home, and a way of life.  Whether through scavenging, begging, or even fishing, the commons provide sustenance to those who need it.  In fact, “ninety per cent of the world’s fishers rely on small inshore marine commons, catching over half the fish eaten in the world today” (The Ecologist, 4/94).  In addition to fishing the commons can provide fresh water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.  The trees, forests, and other natural resources of the commons can provide shelter, or shelter can be made from scavenged materials.  Many urban areas must contend with the safety issues resulting from such shanty towns or slums, where lean-tos and small structures are crowded too close, and are shoddily built.  The commons can also provide a livelihood to the poor that inhabit them.  Whether through begging, bartering, scavenging, or even producing their own goods, the commons can provide the space and raw materials the poor need to get by.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the commons can also serve the wealthy and powerful.  Politicians and city leaders are represented by every part of their city, from down town business centers with skyscrapers and modern city planning, residential neighborhoods, industrial districts, cultural centers and city parks.  Each of these can have a different form of commons within them.  Cities are judged by their good and their bad, with commons falling into both categories, depending on your point of view.  To the urban poor, the commons represent a way of life, a home, a source of their livelihood, whereas the politician may see that as a blight on their city.  A cultural center, museum, or public park on the other hand might not offer the same benefits to the poor, but to the politician, they are a status symbol, a source of beauty and pride in their city.  Both serve different stakeholders, both give very different value, yet both are commons. To the working or merchant class, the commons are a place to do business.

Although they do not operate with the same order and structure as a traditional business district, private property, explicitly delineated, there is a certain method to their madness.  The informal structure of the commons is governed by tradition, with the people who use it, the stakeholders, enforcing their own brand of rules. Vendors set up their stalls, often in the same place they have inhabited for years.  Since space is usually at a premium, sharing and conservation are a necessity.  “It becomes clear that while public space may not always be respected, informal boundaries are well marked within communities of people who know each other.  In the city’s ramshackle shanty towns or along the row of street vendors, anyone who takes up too much space, or the wrong space, or leaves too much of a mess, is brought back into line by neighbors” (Ecologist, 4/94).  Much like how relationships in the community are used monitor microfinance loans in impoverished regions, so too are they used to internally monitor and police the use of the commons.

The commons can also serve a religious or cultural purpose.  Old world cities particularly, are riddled with religious and cultural heritage.  Ancient ruins can sit next to modern buildings.  Churches, mosques, temples, and other religious centers are found throughout cities, most within the commons.  Famous landmarks can serve as an industry in and of themselves.  They offer direct employment of locals, in addition to indirect employment for the business that support the local tourism industry.  It brings foreigners and their money into the community, which benefits the rich and poor alike.  In this sense, the commons serve both locals and visitors alike, as both are stakeholders, in their own different way.

In most cities, basic infrastructure is part of the commons.  Tangible infrastructure such as roads, bridges, levies, canals, sewers, schools, hospitals, and markets for example all make up the commons.  In modern times, intangible infrastructure is also a part of the commons.  Examples of this would be public radio waves, telecommunications networks, and postal systems are also part of the commons.  These, both tangible and intangible, are shared by all, and like other aspects of the commons, serve their various stakeholders differently.  Telecommunications can be used by industry as a vital business function, or they can be used by residents for social communication.  A road can serve as the location for a street vendor, or to ship raw materials to be used in industrial processes.  The uses and benefits are endless. Although the commons are ever shifting, their importance remains paramount.  Protecting the commons and enhancing their value to the different stakeholders that use them are vital for any urban center.  Commons are used by businesses, residents, rich, poor, farmers, fisherman, merchants, and consumers.  A single person can simultaneously fall into several stakeholder categories, or seamlessly switch from one to the other.  Similarly, due to the mercurial natural of the commons themselves, they can also simultaneously serve multiple purposes, to multiple stakeholder groups.

References: The Ecologist. 1993. The commons: Where the community has authority. Whose Common Future, (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers): 3-20

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One thought on “Urban Commons: A Stakeholder Analysis

  1. tlhill2012 November 23, 2012 at 9:17 PM Reply

    George – thanks for your exploration of the commons. I think it makes sense to connect commons to stakeholders. The key question becomes one of belonging and governance. While anyone can, for example, walk through a commons, only those who belong can use it more intensively. In this sense, there is an important difference between those that maintain a church or monument and those who visit. Both are stakeholders, and those that maintain would do well to listen to the wishes of the visitors, but in the end, the visitors don’t have to live with their choices (or not for long), but the maintainers do. Perhaps this is the critical distinction when it comes to defining the in group and others in a commons regime: Who has to live with the decisions? In a health commons, those who bear the brunt of the decisions make the decisions.

    This distinction also helps differentiate the commons from the public. Your example of infrastrucuture (roads, etc) is usually public: Funded and controlled by a distant government, one that might be more, or less, representative and responsive. When citizens groups “adopt” a few miles of roadside for clean up, that is a step towards commons governance, but still a long way from it. The advantage of public ownership is that it is possible to generate large scale investment in goods that don’t hve short-term benefits for any one (or any in group) but long term benefits (and costs) for a larger group. The disadvantages include the possibility of capture (enclosure) of the public good for the benefit of a few – eg., corruption or when a private firm benefits from public investment – as Coca Cola did when the US gov’t built bottling plants for Coke around the world during WWII; and the possibility of irresponsible use (the so-called tragedy of the commons…really tragedy of the common-access, non-managed, public space).

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