Reclaiming the Urban Commons: An Ecological Solution

The public spaces or ‘urban commons’ in our cities range from the hyper-manicured to the neglected. This paradigm, which accurately reflects our collective apathy towards resource management exists under the constant threat of corporate enclosure. There is now a growing movement that offers an alternative plan to re-invigorate these spaces and establish new resilient communities based around sustainable and ecological lifestyles.”[1] In order to breathe life into these spaces, that adequately reflects the fragility of the planet, we must first acknowledge that the commons belong to everyone. If the integrity of the commons is to be protected from the ongoing threat of market forces, new systems of governance will be required.[2] Lefebvre’s idea of the social production of space “does not only mean the right to occupy space in it, but also to decide how it is developed, managed and used.”[3] The ‘right to the city now sees, a new commons regime emerging, brought about by the actions of ordinary people through their day-to-day resistance to corporate enclosure.[4] 

By its very nature, in bypassing market-driven processes, the commons offers the opportunity to ‘incubate new sensibilities in design by creating ecological models and urban retrofitting that prescribes an alternative to the current economic and social model that is fuelled by global consumption.’[5] In an earlier blog, I briefly touched on the R-URBAN strategy; a project emblematic of these aspirations.

The R-URBAN strategy initiated over a decade ago, is a research and action project led by Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree (AAA) that provides a framework for resilient urban regeneration.This project aims to create bottom-up socially oriented economies which do not depend on the global market. In utilising sustainable ecological principles and reactivating “cultures of collaboration and sharing” R-Urban’s framework provides a bulwark against the fragmenting forces of globalisation.[6]

AAA promotes ‘urban tactics’ that encourage residents to self-manage urban spaces which have fallen into disuse, upending ‘stereotypes by proposing reversible projects which explore the potential of contemporary cities.’[7] Active citizens work to create networks and close the loops between production and consumption while changing their lifestyles to live in ways that are more ecological.

1. Resilience Networks: Resilience networks emerge from connected urban commons, everyday practices and civic activities. Image via Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree.
2. Participative Governance And Productive Practices: Participative governance and bottom up dynamics are instigated and the citizens are stakeholders. Image via Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree.
3. Locally Closed Circuits: Locally closed circuits are set up to reduce and recycle local waste, grey water, produce energy, create and consume local products. Image via Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree.

AAA explains that R-Urban “advocates new roles for architects; rather than merely acting as building designers, they can be initiators, negotiators, managers and enablers of processes and agencies that strengthen civic resilience initiators.”[8] AAA founders Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou believe it is this engagement with multiple stakeholders and experimenting with ways of implementing resilience on the ground, that is the key to a successful process.[9]

The R-URBAN process, outlined by Professor Katherine Gibson, from Western Sydney University involves the following steps;[10]

1. Vacant or underutilised land is identified by AAA
2. Negotiations are undertaken with authorities to access the land.
3. AAA holds events to garner interest from local residents.
4. Consultations are undertaken with the community to determine the preferred use of space.
5. AAA propose a design for the space that reflects the resident’s preferences and ideas.
6. Plans are implemented using community volunteers, AAA staff volunteers and student volunteers.
7. Initial oversight and governance of the space is by AAA: users are given rights of access (keys).
8. Continuous development is undertaken to find new ways of occupying the space.
9. Management and governance of space is gradually ceded to the community association.
10. The need to relocate to find alternative space is taken into consideration.

Presently, the R-Urban strategy is applied to local, small-scale projects in Colombes, Ile-de-France, Bagneux et Gennevilliers in Paris and Hackney Wick in London with plans to ‘shift in scale and long term impact by establishing connections between individual urban hubs.’[11] The urban hubs ‘provide tools and spaces for actors and activators while providing infrastructure, training, and capacity to build resilient practices.’[12] The hubs are built as nodes of an ecological metabolic system which is visible and circular.[13]The practices in the AAA design, implemented at R-Urban Colombes and illustrated below, include – “urban agriculture, recycling and reuse, community energy production, water and energy consumption reduction and community economies.”[14] 

The Network – (left) Map of existing and emerging R-Urban Hubs. (right) R-Urban Colombes a neighbourhood of 84,000 inhabitants near Paris. Image via Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree.

R-Urban Colombes – Agrocitè (Agro-city) is an agricultural-cultural unit composed of community gardens, an experimental micro-farm, teaching spaces and a series of experimental devices designed for ecological processes, including; compost heating, rainwater collection, garden irrigation and solar energy production. This hybrid structure is run by both social enterprises and local organisations.[15]

Agrocitè: started as a community garden plot including education facilities,  a shared greenhouse, seed library, vegetable market, local café and cooking facility on what was previously a vacant plot of land.  Image via www.publicspace.org
(Above) Agrolab – built facility specialising in experimenting with intensive organic agricultural production, including ecological devices for rainwater collection, greywater phytoremediation, compost heating, solar energy production and is sustainably constructed (Below) Axonometric diagram showing the impact of “Agrocité” on the urban and social fabric of Colombes.


R-Urban Colombes -Recyclab –
The second part of the sustainable network is a  recycling centre which explores different materials, specifically for ecological building methods. The building itself consists of separate spaces which include; collection points for materials, recycle and reuse workshops, eco-building analysis, meeting spaces, repair cafe and the ‘LABFab’ which provides advice on technology.[16]


R-Urban Colombes – Ecohab (Unbuilt
) The remaining project is a cooperative of seven pilot housing typologies that focus on self-build processes and co-production (experts + non-specialists + ordinary citizens). The residential plot contains social, student and residential housing in addition to community facilities. Building techniques and ecological systems are tested together to build sustainable living models. The results of testing are freely available through an embedded culture of knowledge sharing.[17]


Ecosystems exist in not only in the production of food and resources but in the generation of services and products that unite similar community projects and practices. Locals are encouraged to buy local and create local products. The emerging loop economy is managed by locals to provide “social, ecological and economic improvements for the neighbourhood.”[18] Importantly, the R-Urban hubs facilitate a transition to ecological practices within local communities with the potential to upscale to larger domains.

Ultimately the aim is to network urban hubs at regional and international levels. The overarching plan is to ‘create a new urban commons that in time creates a new civic urban movement.’[19] One that can change the social and political lives of those living and acting in this context, “enabling them over time to become more ecologically, politically and economically affluent.”[20]

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The Architect, The Environmentalist and The City is a blog series unashamedly attempting to spread the word and find new converts to Ecological Urbanism as a means to realise cities that are more resilient, more life-sustaining, and less costly to build and maintain.

 

 

[1] “Projects – R-Urban”, Rhyzom.Net, 2017, http://www.rhyzom.net/projects/rurban/.
[2] Nicholas Hildyard et al., “Reclaiming The Commons”, Thecornerhouse.Org.Uk, 1995, http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/reclaiming-commons#index-15-00-00-0.
[3] http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/r-urban-or-how-co-produce-resilient-city
[4] Nicholas Hildyard et al., Reclaiming The Commons.
[5] Rhyzom.Net,”Projects – R-Urban.”
[6] Ibid.
[7]Francisco Borja Castillo Alberola, Maria Obeso and Cladia De Noi, “Revisiting R-Urban”, Issuu, 2015, https://issuu.com/borjacastilloalb/docs/final_document.
[8] Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism, 1st ed. (Zurich: Lars Muller, 2016),430.
[9] Doina Petrescu, Constantin Petcou and Corelia Baibarac, “Co-Producing Commons-Based Resilience: Lessons From R-Urban”, Building Research & Information 44, no. 7 (2016): 717-736, doi:10.1080/09613218.2016.1214891.
[10] Katherine Gibson, Report To Atelier D’architecture Autogérée (Sydney: University of Western Sydney, 2012), http://r-urban.net/en/files/2012/01/KGibson-RURBANSeminar_June131.pdf.
[11] Ecological Urbanism Page 430
[12] Petrescu et al,Co-Producing Commons-Based Resilience: Lessons From R-Urban,720.
[13] Ibid.,720.
[14] Ibid.,725.
[15] Constantin Petcou and Doina Petrescu, “R-Urban: Resilient Agencies, Short Circuits, And Civic Practices In Metropolitan Suburbs”, Harvard Design Magazine, 2014, http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/37/r-urban-resilient-agencies-short-circuits-and-civic-practices-in-metropolitan-suburbs.
[16] Constantin Petcou and Doina Petrescu, “R-Urban: Resilient Agencies, Short Circuits, And Civic Practices In Metropolitan Suburbs”.
[17] “Projects – Ecohab”, R-Urban.Net, 2016, http://r-urban.net/en/projects/ecoophab/.

[18] Petrescu et al,Co-Producing Commons-Based Resilience: Lessons From R-Urban,722.
[19] Mostafavi et al, Ecological Urbanism,430.
[20] Petrescu et al,Co-Producing Commons-Based Resilience: Lessons From R-Urban,720.

All images via Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree, unless specified otherwise.

Grace Oliver

Grace is a Master of Architecture student at the University of Western Australia, with an interest in design and research that explores the relationship between ecology and architecture, landscape architecture, planning and urbanism.