Urban Commons and Collective Action to Address Climate Change

Climate change and the loss of ecosystem services pose major collective action problems. This means that even though all individuals would benefit from cooperating and taking action, they fail to do so due to conflicting interests and insufficient incentives to act alone. On top of this situation, institutional inertia makes it even more difficult to deal with climate change. In this context, it is worth wondering what role collective-choice arenas could play in increasing the mobilization of civil society organizations to more effectively adapt to and mitigate climate change.
The authors of the paper “Urban Commons and Collective Action to Address Climate Change” focus more specifically on urban commons, defined as natural and societal resources in urban areas that are accessible to all members of a local community or group. The members (and only them) use, share and manage resources together, based on the rules and norms they set. According to the scientific literature, these urban commons play a role in climate-proofing, which refers to the process of turning climate change into mitigation and/or adaptation strategies. Using a multi-layered and cross-disciplinary approach addressing both social and environmental issues, the authors aim at providing an answer to the following question: what role do environmentally-oriented urban commons have in instigating climate-proofing activities in urban areas?

An urban community garden in Denver, Colorado - Photo by Steve Adams on Unsplash
An urban community garden in Denver, Colorado - Photo by Steve Adams on Unsplash

Main conclusions:

Environmental urban commons
Urban green commons help their users learn about environmental issues and climate change adaptation and mitigation. This concept refers to green spaces in urban areas that depend on collective management and organization. Individuals of the group hold rights to it, including the rights to create their own rules and norms and to decide whom to exclude from or include in the management. Allotment gardens, community gardens, or urban community forests are some examples of these environmental urban commons.
Urban green commons constitute learning arenas that help raise awareness on and boost understanding of environmental issues among their members. Urban gardening, for instance, is seen as an “active way of learning by doing”, in which participants learn not only about gardening but also about local ecological conditions, self-organization, and urban space politics. It instils them with new, or reinforced, awareness of climate change at a greater scale than the garden itself. Moreover, urban green commons are key institutional arrangements for individuals and civil society groups to learn about climate change adaptation and mitigation and to become more involved in building cities' resilience. Their practices promote climate-proofing in different ways. For example, by protecting community forests or green structures for biodiversity reasons or to adapt cities to the impacts of flooding (adaptation), they enhance cities’ resilience and also help to sequester carbon (mitigation). Furthermore, urban green commons do not only create opportunities for civil society groups to act on climate change, but they also bring a sociocultural context to adaptation and mitigation efforts, that could, later on, be instigated in the wider society. These local institutions are also more flexible than formal ones and therefore can respond to environmental feedback much faster.
For all that they bring, these environmental urban commons should be more widely developed in society. To do so, property rights regimes and socio-economic investments that support this are needed.

Coworking spaces
Coworking spaces can play a role in climate change mitigation through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the benefits provided by a sharing economy. Firstly, coworking contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by diminishing domestic transportation and commuting distance. As a matter of fact, according to a study from Switzerland, the development of coworking has led to a reduction of 10% in CO2 emissions. Secondly, coworking spaces introduce the notion of sharing economy, which has many benefits and plays a significant role in achieving several Agenda 2030 goals. Through the use of shared offices, coworking contributes to reducing 38-70% GHG emissions and energy use by increasing resource efficiency. It also helps build communities, creates new social ties, and can even lead to the creation of new jobs and new income forms. By allowing and facilitating eye-to-eye contact and physical meetings of community members, coworking spaces play an important role in trust-building and the exchange of tacit knowledge. This is all the more important as climate change represents a collective action problem that depends on trust-building and cooperation for its mitigation. However, it is necessary to underline the fact that these coworking spaces are not always socially sustainable, as they deeply rely on and are managed by public-private partnerships. These can affect public spaces by fragmentizing them and controlling the crowd. They can also contribute to the loss of “third places” – spaces where people socialize in a free and informal way – due to the lack of public funding.

Community climate commons
Community climate commons play a significant role in instigating climate-proofing activities in urban areas as they represent catalysts of civil society mobilization. They are common places where local communities can meet and mobilize together to create shared low-carbon assets. They hold the potential to empower these groups, by providing them with a location where they can get an education or participate in lectures and debates, as well as a place where they can gather, cooperate and mobilize as a community against climate change. This allows them to have greater influence and ownership of the transformation needed to reach net-zero emissions. The community center Folkets Husby, in Sweden, can be an example of a community climate commons. Self- and democratically governed by local voluntary associations, it constitutes the basis for strong local mobilizations for the socially sustainable development of segregated neighborhoods in Stockholm and has managed to put issues such as social segregation on the agenda.

Folkets Husby a meeting place in one of Stockholm's segregated neighborhoods. Photo: Folkets Husby
Folkets Husby a meeting place in one of Stockholm's segregated neighborhoods. Photo: Folkets Husby

To conclude, environmentally-oriented urban commons help instigate climate-proofing activities in urban areas, by providing local communities with knowledge, and places to gather and mobilize. Nevertheless, barriers exist, mainly linked to the unwillingness of local governments to transfer power and property rights to groups of stakeholders, to the lack of financial means, and also to the lack of knowledge about the virtues of urban commons.
This publication was supported by We Don't HaveTime's partner FAIRTRANS, a MISTRA-sponsored research programme to promote transformations to a fair and fossil-free future, led by Stockholm University and the University of Gävle.

Article: “Urban Commons and Collective Action to Address Climate Change”.
Johan Colding, Department of Building Engineering, Energy Systems and Sustainability Science, University of Gävle, Sweden, and The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden.
Stephan Barthel, Department of Building Engineering, Energy Systems and Sustainability Science, University of Gävle, Sweden, and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden.
Robert Ljung, Department of Building Engineering, Energy Systems and Sustainability Science, University of Gävle, Sweden, and Swedish Agency for Work Environment Expertise, Sweden.
Felix Eriksson, Department of Building Engineering, Energy Systems and Sustainability Science, University of Gävle, Sweden.
Stefan Sjöberg, Department of Social Work and Criminology, University of Gävle, Sweden.
Published in 2022, in Social Inclusion, Volume 10, Issue 1

  • Marine Stephan

    122 w

    Very interesting article! Thank you for sharing. It is interesting to read that these urban commons could actually help to mitigate climate change. They should be developed even more

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