Research Project

Commons do exist historically in many societies (de Moore, 2016). One can observe a renewed interest in commons that has been occurring for a few decades, through three main channels (Laval, 2016). The first – theoretical- channel is the work of the Nobel Prize ElinorOstrom (1990)on common pool resources, in reaction against Garret Hardin’s hypothesis of a “Tragedy of the Commons”. She has shown how communities have built sustainable local institutional arrangements for managing resources[1], and emphasized collective self-governance viability. Following this seminal work, further research was conducted at a larger scale.

A second channel locates itself in the field of knowledge economy. Information and communication technologies have enabled the emergence of informational commons, as for instance open-source software or Wikipedia. In this case, the resource is not exhausted but enriched by any user.

The third channel is tightly linked to political and social activism, alter-globalization, and ecology. One can identify an “urban commoning” movement, composed by ideas and practices aiming at transforming urban environment and urban governance, and following the notion of Right to the City[2](Lefebvre, 1968), such as: direct democracy, local currency, occupation of public space and vacant building, etc.This movement offers a new political contract, a proactive culture of citizenship, a reciprocity-based exchange value system(Ramos, 2016).Finally, it invites to reconsider both the notion of common goods and public space, whereas one can widely observe privatization of public space and public services, in a perspective of better financial management (Helfrich, Kulhen, Sachs et Siefkes, 2009 ; Ramos, 2016).

The issue of land property is central to this debate. Indeed, freehold land ownership, as defined by the Civil Code, and the land market to which it is linked, reinforce inequalities and allow land owners to benefit from a land rent that seems unfair to many authors (Attard, 2013). From a commons perspective, a rights-based approach to land should be fostered: it gives priority to land use above land ownership, and to general interested prior to private interest of land owner; it highlights the rights at stake (Right to the city, right to adequate housing, right to land security) and promotes the primacy of the social function of land and property (Mathivet, 2014).

In this research, commons are understood as a paradigm of sharing and fight against exclusion and inequalities. We do focus on urban land commons for housing, which refer to situations in which land is held in common and rights to access, use and transfer land are (partly) defined by the community. They represent a form of local community self-governance, but still articulated to public support and private interest (with a contextual notion of community to be defined precisely in each case). We link commons with the topic of urban inclusion, promoted by international agendas[3].


General research question: a critical perspective on “commons” assumptions

Conventional systems governing access to land for housing generate exclusion in cities of the Global South. According to the United Nations Rapporteur on adequate housing (Rolnik, 2013), the realization of the social function of land should rely on a diversity of land tenure options.

The commons approach and the notion of inclusive city, both, put forward citizen practices and assume the capacity of people to develop and enforce management rules and to maintain community cohesion over time. We believe that this assumption is, sometimes, close to utopia. Through this research, we aim at critically examine urban land commons in specific contexts to determine their contribution to an inclusive city, notably through the realization of the social function of land. We deem necessary to look very closely at governance issues (who is involved?), with the hypothesis that public authorities and private sector are often also involved in a form of hybrid governance, and that the notion of “community” has to be characterized locally. 

Thus, one can observe a strong contradiction between an inclusive perspective on city through a universalist discourse, and exclusive practices of commons at the local level (each community elaborating its own rules, with clear limits of the community). Then, we need to determine the main effects of urban land commons: who is included (beneficiary) and excluded? Under which conditions? What is the place of land commons in national land systems? Are urban land commons replicable?

Our main research question is then the following: do urban land commons constitute an opportunity to foster urban inclusion?

Urban inclusion is understood according to three complementary perspectives :

  • Socioeconomic inclusion (right to housing for disadvantaged people): to what extent urban land commons give access to (secure) land for housing to lower classes that are excluded from other housing systems (public housing, public land, private sector housing)? Do they fill in the gaps of conventional land and housing system? At what scale? To what extent are they replicable?
  • Political/democratic inclusion(Right to the City): to what extent urban land commons illustrate the capacities of urban dwellers to establish sustainable access and management rules? To what extent these rules are accepted by public authorities, if not included in public policies or laws?
  • Land and spatial inclusion (right to secure land rights and access to urban centralities): what is the location of these urban land commons? Do they enable access to economic opportunities? To urban basic services and infrastructure? And more generally to urban centralities?

[1]She has then identified eight design principles of sustainable local common pool resources management : i) clearly defined limits, ii) The appropriation and provision of common pool resources are adapted to local conditions; iii) Collective-choice arrangements allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process; iv) Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators; v) A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules; vi) Mechanisms of conflict resolution are cheap and of easy access; vii) Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities; and viii) in the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

[2]Quoting Foster et Iaine, Ramos (2016 : 5)writes: « the commons claim is importantly aligned with the idea behind the “right to the city”—the right to be part of the creation of the city, the right to be part of the decision-making processes shaping the lives of city inhabitants, and the power of inhabitants to shape decisions about the collective resource in which we all have a stake ».

[3]See also: Simonneau C., Salenson I. (2017). Holding Land in Common Within Cities. What Can We Learn from Collective Tenure in Urban Context? Agence Française de Développement. AFD Research Paper Series. 2017-53. 28 p. Repéré à