Growing resource consumption and increasing inequalities in urban areas in both the Global North and the Global South pose urgent socio-ecological challenges to sustainability. COMMONPATHS focuses on urban resources managed as commons – in Ghana and Switzerland – and examines how the collectives that manage them contribute to addressing the challenges of overconsumption and inequality.
Three essential dimensions define the commons: a resource, a collective self-declared as legitimate to care for it, and rules. Self-management is a crucial notion that refers to the collective as a community of users. These user communities (a) produce institutional rules supporting common ownership, collective decision-making, and shared responsibilities, and (b) promote social practices leading to a sense of community (e.g., sense of belonging, commitment, identity), as prerequisites for (c) the decommodification of human-nature interactions.
In line with new institutionalist theories, COMMONPATHS considers sustainability challenges as institutional issues. The rules of the game that emerge in self-declared collectives can potentially provide long-term solutions for sustainable resource management beyond the usual state-market dichotomy. COMMONPATHS goes a step further and argues that self-declared collectives may even be forms of social-economic organizations that can make transformations toward a post-growth organization of society socially, ecologically, and economically acceptable.
The main research questions of the project are: How do processes of creating new commons – hereafter referred to as “commonification” – influence urban sustainability by providing new solutions beyond market and state inabilities? Which transition pathways lead to their (un)successful development? And what is their transformative potential toward a more just and sustainable society, and what are their limitations?
COMMONPATHS aims to understand better the emergence, organization, effects, and conditions of success of three commonification processes aimed at (1) greening cities, (2) creating affordable housing, and (3) supporting community-based agrifood initiatives. By focusing on the governance of these three resource systems, COMMONPATHS aims to analyze the conditions under which these movements effectively contribute to urban sustainability. COMMONPATHS opts for a strong definition of sustainability that recognizes the potential contradictions between infinite economic growth and planetary limits.
First, the interdisciplinary analysis promoted by COMMONPATHS will lead to the identification of design principles that ensure the sustainable commonification of resources in urban settings. Design principles are those features of institutions and resource systems that are associated with strong sustainability. Second, COMMONPATHS will develop a typology of transition pathways toward commonification and interrogate the political-economic dimensions of urban commonification. Third, if self-declared collectives can create “islands of decommodification” in urban landscapes otherwise dominated by profit-seeking behaviors, their study will provide an empirically-grounded contribution to debates on the post-growth organization of societies.
RESEARCH APPROACH AND IMPLEMENTATION
Achieving these ambitious goals requires an inter- and transdisciplinary approach. We rely on close collaboration between complementary disciplines: (1) urban geography and institutional analysis, (2) individual behavioral perspectives and transition studies, (3) political ecology and intersectionality, and (4) urban ecology. These disciplinary approaches span the natural and social sciences, qualitative and quantitative research, individual and socially oriented interpretations, and empirical and theoretical approaches.
COMMONPATHS is divided into three main phases. The first will overview commonification initiatives aimed at greening cities, creating affordable housing, and providing community-managed sustainable food. In the second phase, we will conduct in-depth case studies in Ghana and Switzerland. In the third phase, we will build on the latest developments in archetype analysis to identify patterns from the initiatives studied in phase 1, formulate design principles for sustainable commonification, and assess the potential for generalizing the results (scaling up). In transdisciplinary workshops organized in Switzerland and Ghana, we will also explore the conditions of the emergence of a post-growth urban society.