What is the role of land policy in urban commons governance? Lessons from Switzerland


  • Tianzhu Liu University of Bern, Institute of Geography




The over-extraction and uneven distribution of resources pose significant challenges to environmental and social sustainability. Addressing these challenges requires a shift from the conventional economic growth to a post-growth model centered on well-being and fair resource distribution. Urban environment is a key setting for resource management with worldwide urbanization. Urban commons, defined as an urban-related resource system that is self-governed by a community of users, offer potential for post-growth transitions through decommodification (Bakker, 2007; Ostrom, 2015). They represent a promising governance avenue for sustainable resource management.

Although commons serve as alternatives to state and market, contemporary urban commons are intertwined with the state (Pithouse, 2014). Of particular interest are public actions concerning land, or land policy, as land stands as a crucial resource. Land policy refers to public decisions and actions implementing spatial development objectives through changes in the use, distribution, and value of land, integrating the issue of land-use planning and property rights (Gerber et al., 2018, p. 10). Land policy and urban commons share similar focuses on resource use, distribution, and governance. However, the precise influence of land policy on the initiation, development, and maintenance of urban commons remains unclear.

This study explores the impact of land policy on urban commons, examining two main questions: 1) Under which land policy are urban commons managed? 2) What land policy instruments affect the emergence, organization, and perpetuation of urban commons? We examine a sample of urban commons initiatives in Switzerland to answer the question.

A mixed use of quantitative and qualitative methods is adopted. The study concentrates on diverse urban commons types—housing, agri-food, and city greening—within three distinct functional urban areas in Switzerland, each located in different cantons characterized by varying legislative frameworks. The initial data collection phase involves a desk review covering over 100 urban commons, gathering information on their characteristics related to resource usage, rule establishment, and community dynamics. Additionally, policy documents are scrutinized to identify pertinent land policy instruments. Quantitative statistical and correlation analyses are used to process this data. The second stage of data collection involves semi-structured interviews with project managers of the most intriguing cases. These interviews delve into the processes of access to land, the fabrication of land use rules, and the maintenance of resource use. The focus is on influential land policy instruments serving as enablers or barriers, along with strategies employed by commoners in response. Qualitative content analysis is used to interpret the interviews.

Results are presented with three parts: firstly, an overview of land policy features within which urban commons are created; secondly, correlation between land policy instruments and urban commons features, illustrating how urban commons management is affected by land policy; thirdly, an examination of how land policy is obstacles or facilitators to urban commons as well as commoners’ strategies. This research will enhance understanding of urban governance rooted in urban commons, highlighting their development within formal land institutions. It seeks to offer guidance to commoners on self-governance strategies and to policymakers on adopting land policy instruments favoring urban commons, thus fostering the transition towards post-growth.


Bakker, K. (2007). The “Commons” Versus the “Commodity”: Alter-globalization, Anti-privatization and the Human Right to Water in the Global South. Antipode, 39(3), 430–455. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00534.x

Gerber, J.-D., Hengstermann, A., & Viallon, F.-X. (2018). How to deal with scarcity of land. In Instruments of Land Policy: Dealing with Scarcity of Land (1st ed., p. 19). Routledge.

Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316423936

Pithouse, R. (2014). An urban commons? Notes from South Africa. Community Development Journal, 49(SUPPL.1), i31–i43. https://doi.org/10.1093/cdj/bsu013