Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber argues in his recent book, The Utopia of Rules, that bureaucracy is the standard mechanism in contemporary life for coercing people to comply with the top-down priorities of institutions, especially corporations and government.  Anyone concerned with the commons, therefore, must eventually address the realities of bureaucratic power and the feasible alternatives. Is there a more human, participatory alternative that can actually work?

The good news is that the City of Bologna, Italy, is pioneering a new paradigm of municipal governance that suggests, yes, there are some practical, bottom-up alternatives to bureaucracy. 

Two weeks ago, the city government celebrated the first anniversary of its Bologna Regulation on public collaboration for urban commons, a system that actively invites ordinary citizens and neighborhoods to invent their own urban commons, with the government’s active assistance.  I joined about 200 people from Bologna and other Italian cities on May 15 for a conference that celebrated the Regulation, which is the formal legal authority empowering citizens to take charge of problems in their city. 

How does the program work? 

It starts by regarding the city as a collaborative social ecosystem. Instead of seeing the city simply as an inventory of resources to be administered by politicians and bureaucratic experts, the Bologna Regulation sees the city’s residents as resourceful, imaginative agents in their own right.  Citizen initiative and collaboration are regarded as under-leveraged energies that – with suitable government assistance – can be recognized and given space to work.  Government is re-imagined as a hosting infrastructure for countless self-organized commons.

To date, the city and citizens have entered into more than 90 different “pacts of collaboration” – formal contracts between citizen groups and the Bolognese government that outline the scope of specific projects and everyone’s responsibilities. The projects fall into three general categories – living together (collaborative services), growing together (co-ventures) and working together (co-production).

People in tech circles often talk about the “attention economy” with knowing nonchalance.  Instead of things being scarce, they note, the real shortage these days is people’s attention.  Hence the ferocious drive to capture people’s attention. 

This analysis is true as far as it goes.  What it fails to address is that the “attention economy” is not really an “economy.”  It is a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Sellers are using every possible technique to colonize our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.    

Author Matthew B. Crawford made an eloquent case for the “attentional commons” in an opinion piece, "The Cost of Paying Attention," in Sunday’s New York Times (March 8).  “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?" he asks.  "Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”

Crawford recounts a series of all-to-familiar intrusions upon our attention:  ads on the little screen used to swipe credit cards at the grocery store…. ads for lipstick on the trays at airport security screening lines…. “endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group” along the moving handrail on an airport escalator….the ubiquitous chatter of CNN and TV ads in the airport lounge. 

“The fields of vision that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower,” Crawford writes.  He concedes that you can put on headphones or play with your smartphone – but the point is that neither of these strategies prevent a shared social space from being destroyed. Without such spaces, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop certain types of attitudes and relationships.  Our inner imagination and ability to reflect atrophy.  Such subtle, inner virtues that pale in the face of cold, hard cash!

What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life?  That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.

The Bologna project is the brainchild of Professor Christian Iaione of LUISS University in Rome in cooperation with student and faculty collaborators at LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons.  LabGov is an “inhouse clinic” and think tank that is concerned with collaborative governance, public collaborations for the commons, subsidiarity (governance at the lowest appropriate level), the sharing economy and collaborative consumption.  The tagline for LabGov says it all:  “Society runs, economy follows. Let’s (re)design institutions and law together.”

For years Iaione has been contemplating the idea of the “city as commons” in a number of law review articles and other essays. In 2014, the City of Bologna formally adopted legislation drafted by LabGov interns. The thirty-page Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons (official English translation here) outlines a legal framework by which the city can enter into partnerships with citizens for a variety of purposes, including social services, digital innovation, urban creativity and collaborative services. 

Taken together, these collaborations comprise a new vision of the “sharing city” or commons-oriented city. To date, some 30 projects have been approved under the Bologna Regulation.  Dozens of other Italian cities are emulating the Bologna initiative.

Governments are so accustomed to dictating their will, through coercion if necessary, that they find it unimaginable that people might willingly – and with creativity and enthusiasm – self-organize themselves to take care of urgent needs.  So pause a moment to behold the remarkable Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.  This settlement of 85,000 displaced Syrians is showing how even desperate, resource-poor people can show enormous creativity and self-organization, and turn their "camp" into a "city."

In many respects, Zaatari bears an uncanny resemblance to the DIY dynamics of the Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert – an annual gathering that attracts more than 65,000 people for a week.  Both eschew "government" in favor of self-organized governance.  Both confer opportunities and responsibilities and individuals, and facilitate bottom-up initiatives through lightweight infrastructures.

As the New York Times reported on July 4, the Zaatari camp has “neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”  Times’ urbanist/architecture critic Michel Kimmelman declares that “Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.”

Last week, at the Edge Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, I learned how participatory budgeting is starting to get some real traction here in the US. Participatory budgeting, or PB to aficionados, is a process by which ordinary people determine how to spend municipal funds.  Ginny Browne of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is based in Brooklyn, gave a terrific overview of the history and current state of this rare form of citizen engagement in government. The basic point is to let people have a direct say about the services that most affect them.

Participatory budgeting got its start in 1969 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city of 1.5 million residents.  Launched as an effort to bypass political corruption, PB is now used in that city to allocate 20 percent of the budget, or $200 million.  The process engages some 50,000 citizens in Porto Alegre, and has resulted in a doubling of sanitation services and more school buses for underserved areas.  (For more on PB in Porto Alegre, see the excellent book chapter by Hilary Wainwright in her 2009 book Reclaim the State.) 

Participatory budgeting first came to the US in 2009 when a Chicago city councilman attending the U.S. Social Forum decided to try it out in that city’s 29th ward.  In 2011 four New York City council members introduced PB in their districts.  About 1.5 million people participated in deciding how to spend $14 million for infrastructure projects. 

A year later, the city of Vallejo, California, introduced PB for $3.2 million in city programs and services. The idea had real appeal because the city had just gone through bankruptcy proceedings and citizen trust in government was low. A twenty-person steering committee for PB was created.  After brainstorming ideas and developing project proposals, 4,000 citizens chose which of twelve different projects to fund.

Homegrown Urban Parks in Toronto

To the people of Toronto, city parks are not something that the city government simply provides.  They are a passion that engages ordinary citizens acting as commoners.  A great example is the Homegrown National Park, a new green corridor in the heart of Toronto that the David Suzuki Foundation is building with the help of 21 “Neighborhood Park Rangers” and 14 partner groups. 

Taking inspiration from authors Richard Louv and Douglas Tallamy, who have written about our extreme alienation from nature and its negative effects on our well-being, the Homegrown National Park is building green space along the path of a “lost river” in Toronto, Garrison Creek, that was built over many years ago. The project also wants to connect all the “islands of green” in the city into an interconnected ecological space.

What makes the Homegrown National Park so unusual is its mobilization of citizens.  The idea is not just to build another park – which would be a fine and welcome mission -- but to re-connect people to nature.  It aims to help people step up to the responsibilities and pleasures of acting as stewards of their own urban spaces.  Volunteers are invited to plant native trees and shrubs, cultivate spaces for birds and butterflies, and help people grow food in their backyards and balconies.  You can watch a video of the project here.  (Thanks for the alert on this project, Paul Baines!)

The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.   

Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries.  Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities.  If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it.  Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london. 

New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”

Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable: 

The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways.  Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use and find everything laid out more intelligently.  Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.

How to Build a “Shareable City”

Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center have released a fantastic new report surveying the ways in which cities can adopt policies to promote “sharing” in a range of areas -- food, housing, transportation and jobs.  The landmark report, “Policies for Shareable Cities:  A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders,” pulls together “scores of innovative, high impact policies that US city governments have put in place to help citizens share resources, co-produce, and create their own jobs.” 

What exactly is a “sharing city”?  It’s one that encourages carsharing and bikesharing programs through specific policies, such as designating “pick-up spots” for ridesharing and altering local taxes to make carsharing more attractive.  A sharing city is one that encourages urban agriculture on vacant lots and allows homegrown vegetables to be sold in the neighborhood.  A shareable city supports innovations like shared workspaces, shared commercial kitchens, community-financed start-ups, community-owned commercial centers, and spaces for “pop-up” businesses.  It also encourages home-based micro-enterprises by lowering permitting barriers.

What’s impressive about this 40-page report is that it provides a practical action plan that any city could pick up and implement immediately.  Yes, there are larger federal and state policies that could help make cities more shareable and liveable, but it is a misconception that only such big, bold policy reforms will work.  Municipalities can take a wide number of modest steps right now that, by supporting the "micro-dynamics" of social life, can have enormous macro-impacts on the affordability, social fabric and quality of life of a city.  As a report focused on American cities, it’s unclear to me how far the policy recommendations may apply to non-American cities....but I suspect that many of the ideas could work abroad.  

The report’s introduction explains the rationale behind the shareable city:

The sharing economy challenges core assumptions made in the 20th century planning and regulatory frameworks – namely, that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities should be physically separated from one another, and that each single family household operates as an independent economic unit.  The sharing economy brings people and their work back together through sharing, gifting, bartering, and peer-to-peer buying and selling.  City governments can increasingly step into the role of facilitators of the sharing economy by designing infrastructure, services, incentives and regulations that factor in the social exchanges of this game-changing movement. 

When I pump gas in my car these days, there is a video screen on the pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.  It is so loud and obnoxious that it takes great restraint to not smash the damn screen with my car keys.  (For the record, the gas station is a Cumberland Farms convenience store.)

Thanks to architecture professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, I now have a vocabulary for talking about such vandalism against our shared mental environment.  It is a desecration of the ambient commons.  The ambient commons consists of all of those things in our built environment, especially in cities, that we take for granted as part of the landscape:  architectural design, urban spaces, designs that guide and inform our travels, amenities for social conviviality.  Professor McCullough explores these themes in his fascinating new book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press).

Not many peole have rigorously thought about how new information technologies are changing the ambient commons of cities.  Nowadays media feeds are everywhere -- on building facades, billboards, hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators and even gas pumps.  About three in five of us carry around smartphones, which have radically changed how we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps are a new form of annotated “wayfinding” that makes signage and tourist guidebooks less necessary.  The Internet of Things – sensor-readable RFID tags on objects – make the cityscape more “digitally legible” in ways that previously required architectural design. 

It has reached such a state that many retailers now use sensors on our smartphones to track our movements, behavior and moods during the course of browsing stores.  Retailers want to assemble a database of in-store customer behavior (just as they collect data during our website visits) so that they can adjust product displays, signage and marketing in ways that maximize sales.  This was described by a recent New York Times article and accompanying video, “Attention, Shoppers:  Store is Tracking Your Cell."   

The explosive growth in the “number, formats and contexts of situated images” in the city means that we now experience a cityscape in different ways.  We identify our locations, find information, connect with each other and experience life in different ways.  The embedded design elements of the ambient commons affect how we think, behave and orient ourselves to the world. 

“We move around with and among displays,” writes McCullough notes.  “Global rectangles have become part of the [urban] scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere.  Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented.  Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.”

When people deliberately break the law to become squatters or take possession of public buildings, it is a pretty good sign that the market/state is failing to meet the public’s basic needs. This is the general scenario in many parts of Rome, reports Donatella Della Ratta of Al Jazeera, as various citizens’ movements take over theaters, public buildings and apartment buildings.  Squatting and illegal occupation are rampant. 

Much of the turmoil has resulted from budget cutbacks and the resulting failure of government to uphold its constitutional duty to provide adequate housing and meet other public needs.  Shady speculators then swarm into the picture to snap up buildings that the government is selling at rock-bottom prices in order to raise money. 

What’s a victimized public to do?  Defy the law and occupy what is theirs.  In Rome, former employees of the Teatro Valle, a grand public theater and former opera house, have taken over the premises since June 2011.  (Here is Della Ratta's November 2011 account of the Teatro Valle occupation.)  This act of defiance has now sparked many similar citizen takeovers around the city.  In one of the more notable occupations, citizens took over a government building used for motor vehicle registrations and drivers’ licensure.  As Della Ratta reports: 

“Scup (Sport e Cultura Popolare) as the place has been renamed, was occupied, cleaned up and brought back to life by a mixed group of young activists, sport instructors and some residents of the neighborhood.  They were outraged by the lack of public spaces for leisure and sport activities in an area that has become more and more gentrified while rental prices have soared.” 

A young activist, Carlo, explained:  “Occupying is an expression of public outrage.” 

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